07 August 2009

How to Shine at Customer Service

Marketing is essential to the success of any business. Yes, there are some businesses that do well with little or no advertising. But there is more to marketing than advertising. Much more.

The American House Dictionary defines marketing as “the commercial functions involved in transferring goods from producer to consumer” That covers a lot of ground. It starts with the production of the product, and ends with the purchase of the product. Or does it?

If you don't like that definition, consider the four “Ps” of marketing: product, place, price and promotion. You may have heard those in business school, and they are, no doubt, important. You must have a good product. You must place it where your target market will see it. You must price it properly. And, of course, you must promote it.

These two concepts provide a pretty good picture of marketing. But there's something missing. Something important. And that “something” is customer service.

“Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game.”

Every successful business owner knows that providing good customer service is important. But have you taken the time to think about why this is true? There are many reasons:

• Happy customers tend to be repeat customers. If they had a good experience once, they will remember it the next time they need something that you can provide.
• Happy customers can refer their friends and family to you. Your best advertising efforts just can't beat a personal testimonial from a satisfied customer.
• Happy customers might give your products or services as gifts. This puts them in the hands of a new customer, and if you make a good impression, he could become a repeat customer.
• Happy customers can spread the word far and wide. In the Internet age, anyone can broadcast his opinions through blogs, websites and email. Those who have a favorable opinion of your company may take it upon themselves to provide free advertising for you.
• Unhappy customers won't come back, won't refer you to friends and family, and won't give your products or services as gifts. But they may very well spread the word far and wide. In fact, they're more likely to broadcast their unhappiness than happy customers are to share their opinions.

Customer service can easily cause your business to sink or swim. So why isn't it even mentioned in many definitions of marketing?

Maybe it's because it's such a loaded subject. Customer service is one of those things that permeates every aspect of a business. From the design of the product, to the way it's promoted, to the method of delivery to the customer, and beyond. In fact, many of the most important aspects of customer service happen after the sale is made. These include responses to questions about the product, handling of complaints, and follow-up efforts.

Or maybe it's because customer service isn't an exact science. There are certain things about it that are universal, but what works for one business won't necessarily work for another. Small, localized service-based businesses, for instance, might be able to follow up with each customer by phone and ask personalized questions about their experience after each purchase. For larger, product-based businesses, such an approach might be impractical.

Whatever the reason may be, it's imperative to keep customer service at the forefront of your marketing efforts. It's much easier and more cost-effective to keep an existing customer than it is to gain a new one.

Going the Extra Mile

“Here is a simple but powerful rule – always give people more than what they expect to get.”
? Nelson Boswell

Customer service is, obviously, about treating your customers well. It's about making sure they had the best possible buying experience, and that they are satisfied with what they bought. Your competitors know this, and if they're doing well, they put it into practice.

If everything else is equal, customers will give their business to the company with the best customer service. So how do you compete with another company that values its customers? You go above and beyond the call of duty.

Even if you have little or no competition in your niche, or your competition has a lousy reputation, it pays to give your customers more than they expect. If you do, they will be more likely to spread the word about their experiences and less likely to stray. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

• Offer spectacular support. Provide multiple options for contacting your customer service department, such as 24-hour phone support, online chat and email.
• Offer incentives to loyal customers. For example, start a program that gives them gift certificates or discounts after they've purchased a certain dollar amount in products.
• Give free gifts with purchases. They don't have to be expensive to make an impression.
• Make a money-back guarantee. New customers are more likely to try your product if they feel that they have nothing to lose.
• Have a customer appreciation day. Invite customers and prospective customers to your office or storefront, and provide refreshments, activities and prizes. If you do business online only, you could do prize drawings or offer free samples.

It's great to try to see things from your customers' point of view, to think about what you would want, need, and expect if you were one of them. If you can provide that, your customer will be satisfied. But if you can provide more than that, he will be delighted.

Any business that completely ignores customer service will go under quickly. Those that do enough for their customers to get by will do just that – get by. But if you can consistently exceed your customers' expectations, you will go far. Doing so will require extra work, and it might require some added expense. But your efforts will be rewarded handsomely.

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