Service strategies that succeed

Exceptional customer service is, as business-management consultant and author Tom Peters says, the competitive edge. It is the difference between a stagnant, flat business and a healthy thriving one. Any successful business has four characteristics: the place where you do your business, the product that you provide, the promotion or marketing you do for your product, and the people who provide the service to the customers. Far too often, people write off the latter as "just smile and say thank you," and sometimes you're lucky to even get that. With the plethora of customer-service literature flooding bookstores and libraries, you may wonder why sloppy, unprofessional service still saturates all segments of business today.

Customer service challenges and prescriptions * Challenge 1: Customers in America today demand better, more and faster service. In this new information age, customers are better-educated and more informed than ever before. But we've developed a "convenience-store mentality." We want what we want and we want it now. Customers want speed and are willing to pay for it.

* Challenge 2: Competition in every industry is growing faster. Mainly due to franchising and licensing, more individuals are venturing out in new and diverse businesses, often ones in which they have little or no actual experience. With this emergence, customers have many more service providers from which to choose, so quality, consistency and experience become paramount. Consider Nordstroms department stores. They traditionally staff 25 to 30 percent more service professionals on the floor so they are always available when needed. Nordstroms also has one of the most liberal customer-trusting return policies in the garment industry. If you don't like it, bring it back, and they will give you a complete refund-no receipt, no identification, no manager's approval necessary. That's how to gain customer loyalty.

* Challenge 3: Most employees do not have the training or power to give exceptional customer service. For companies to succeed in the '90s, managers must empower people at the lowest levels of the organization to solve customers' problems and to meet customers' needs. The days of asking customers to wait to speak to a manager to solve a problem or to fix a complaint are fading fast. Indifferent attitudes-such as "It's not my fault," "It's not my job" or "I just work here"-create frustrated and dissatisfied customers. These attitudes also make the choice of service provider easier for the customers-that is, find a business that treats people better. Jan Carlsson of SAS Airlines suggests that a powerful cycle of service exists when every player on the team seizes what he calls "moments of truth" (any time any employee encounters a customer-in person or on the phone). To turn these moments of truth into proactive opportunities to hook a customer, follow these prescriptions:

* Prescription 1: Know your customers and their needs better. Thriving, successful companies realize how vital it is to observe and poll customers. They also anticipate the customers' needs, sometimes even before the customer knows he or she has a need.

* Prescription 2: Personalize and customize the service you provide. You have heard it before, "Sorry, we don't do that," or, "It's company policy." Pursue all possible options before saying no. At Genova's Italian Deli in Oakland, Calif., employees of this mostly family-run business know their customers' names and sandwich preferences by memory. Bob Maynard, the key to the success of Keystone, Colo. Ski Resort and president of Aspen Ski Corp., was obsessed with details-details others don't think of-such as placing facial tissues in rustic-looking stands at the top and bottom of the ski lifts. He recognized his customers had a specific need-a need to blow their noses. Customize, customize, customize.

* Prescription 3: Ensure that every service player receives professional communication and telephone-techniques training. Often the first impression a customer gets of your landscaping business, golf course, park or college campus is the one that sticks. And nearly 80 percent of your customers get their first impression of your company over the telephone. In any growing business today, the telephone can be one of your most powerful business tools. However, we often consider it to be the single greatest cause of distraction, frustration and interruption in the typical business day. Business owners and their employees should receive professional telephone-technique training. The following five keys to professional phone etiquette apply to any business regardless of size or type. Review them with your entire team, discuss them so you can apply them appropriately, then practice and follow-up.

Before the ring Preparation is the key to any successful venture. What takes place immediately before the phone rings can directly influence the quality of the conversation. Here are six factors that directly affect your voice, its quality, pacing and energy, as well as your attentiveness. * Make sure your chair or seat is comfortable but erect. Standing up will give you better vocal quality and more energy. * Organize your workspace so your most-used materials are within reach. * Schedule a "best time" to receive internal calls when you generally have fewer customer calls. * Never eat, drink or chew gum while on the phone. * Smile: It changes the tone of your voice as well as your attitude. * Realize that the customer has no idea if you're having a crisis or simply having a bad day. Besides it's not their problem.

Vocal vitality Presenting yourself on the phone is as important as how you present yourself in person. Just as you would make sure your appearance was neat, clean and professional, your voice should be clear and confident. Emphasize mouth movement. This improves your enunciation and diction. Be sure you don't use 'gotta,' 'hafta' or 'needa' instead of 'I've got to,' 'I have to' or 'I need to.'

* Speak up. Sufficient volume is critical to convey interest and confidence.

* Talk through your mouth, not through your nose. You may have a cold or a deviated septum, but the customer only knows a nasal tone makes you sound like a whiner.

* Control vocal interference. Nonsensical words-um, er, well, you know, OK, like and really-show a lack of professionalism and may convey immaturity.

* Don't speak too fast. It conveys impatience and causes the customer to feel rushed.

* Constantly be thinking "I'm glad you called." Your customer will read this in the way you respond to their requests or concerns.

* Look in a mirror as you talk on the phone. It may sound vain, but it works. You probably have no idea the kind of facial expressions you have been making to your customers particularly when they make odd or ridiculous statements or requests.

Using the hold button the proper way The appropriate use of the hold button is one of the true signs of a telephone professional. Too often people use the hold button like the ignore button. If you must place a caller on hold, employ these strategies:

* First, ask them if you may place them on hold-don't tell them you're putting them on hold. Customers, and all people for that matter, hate to be told they have to do anything. Asking the customer to hold gives them the opportunity to make the choice.

* Wait for an answer. It's even worse when you ask but don't wait for an answer. If their reply is yes, thank them. For example, say, "Thank you very much, just one moment please." If their reply is no or some other variation- such as "I'm calling long distance," "I'm in a hurry" or "I'm on my cellular"-ask if you can immediately direct their call or answer a brief question. You may have to explain the reason for needing to place them on hold. For example, you may explain, "I have three lines ringing" or "I need to research your inquiry." You also have the option of asking, "May I take your name and number and call you back?" Most customers appreciate your situation and will concede. But, in case they do not and refuse anything but immediate help, cooperate as best you can. Remember, it is better that you asked them to hold. If you had not asked and simply placed them on hold, they would have hung up. You would have lost the customer or the potential customer to the Yellow Pages.

Making crises calls Some telephone calls can be difficult to make. For example, when you call to collect overdue payment, the customer may become defensive or even verbally abusive. Here are some tips on dealing with high emotions on the phone. (They are effective in person as well.)

Avoid using the word you. Use I instead. "Here's what I need..." or "If I could..." Three anti-customer phrases include: "You'll have to...," "You'd better..." or "You should've..." Instead, try "Would you be willing..." or "I'd appreciate it if..."

Apologize whenever the customer has been inconvenienced, regardless of who is responsible for causing the trouble. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience." Tell the customer what you can do, not what you can't do for them.

Don't interrupt. Always listen to their entire explanation or comment before you respond, even if you think you know what they are going to say. This lets the customer vent, helps you hear and understand, and lets the customer feel valued and understood.

If the customer is angry or upset, try this strategy: Tell the customer that you are concerned and want to help. Tell them that you want to make a record of the details of their problem and will take notes throughout the conversation. Ask them to explain the situation carefully with dates, times, etc. This will serve three purposes: 1) It will calm them down because it slows them down. 2) You will have a documented record of the situation. 3) The caller will be much less likely to use disturbing or profane language when they know the conversation is being documented.

Finally, remember these three key principles of exceptional customer service: * Underpromise and overdeliver * Talk the customer's language-call it like they see it * The customer is not always right, but they are always the customer.

Follow these steps when first answering the phone. Announcements should include:

A greeting. This is not optional. You should always answer first with a, "Good morning," "Good afternoon," "Thank you for calling." Not only is this polite, but it prepares the customer to listen and respond. Have you ever noticed that when you answer the phone with your company or department name first, that often the customer still asks you, "Is this AAA Landscaping?"

The company/department. "Castle Pines Golf Club," "Maintenance Department" or "State Parks Division," whatever is appropriate for your business.

Your name. This is optional but good practice. Customers prefer talking to a person rather than a company or department. When you offer your name-because it is so much more personal-your customers will offer their name. This is valuable for you, and it will help make the customer feel like they know Bob or Susan at Cascade Shadows.

Your appreciation for their call. This also is optional.

Offer your assistance. "How may I help you?" or "How may I direct your call?" If you answer the main line and expect to transfer or connect most calls to someone else, always say, "How may I direct your call?" rather than "How may I help you?" This prevents the customer from giving you their life story only to realize that you are not the one who can help them, thus saving both of you time and aggravation.

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