Are you Customer Friendly?

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 25-02-2007

I have often wrote about the “Customer Experience”.   I have also said that great customer service alone will not will not give you customer loyalty, it’s the overall “experience” that creates loyalty.  One of the key elements of this ‘Customer Experience” is arrived at by being “Customer Friendly”.  Some questions you need to ask yourself are: “Do I make it easy to do business with me?  Does the customer have to jump through ‘hoops’ before I deliver their first time order?  Am I easy to reach or access?  How do I answer the phones?  Do my employees have the authority to make decisions necessary  to completely satisfy the customer and are they held accountable for this action?  Have I spent enough time training them on how to achieve customer satisfaction and be ‘customer friendly’?  Have I personally taken the time to talk to our customers and see how satisified they are?”  I can probably add at least another dozen questions here that all lead to the same thing.  Are you “Customer Friendly?”

Having been in the office products business for over 22 years, and owned my own company for 17 of those,  I can say that being customer friendly isn’t always such an easy task.  As the sales rep I get excited when I get a new customer to start doing business with me.  As the business owner I get nervous because I’m wondering if they are a credit risk.  As the delivery person I wonder how difficult or demanding they are when recieving their orders.   As the warehouse person I’m curious how many returns they will have.   And so on.  However, if I make it too difficult to get credit or deliveries or credit for returns then I will have failed at being a customer friendly business.   When I first began my business I learned quickly that the customer was a wealth of knowledge if I took the time to ask the right questions and carefully listen to the replies, then take action on the areas that needed work.  I didn’t hesitate to query customers on how good or bad a job I was doing.  I sincerely appreciated constructive criticism, and still do.

Let’s look at a couple of real experiences I’ve had and learned from in years past.   A customer told me once that cutting the plastic bands of the copier paper boxes was such a pain for her that she always had to ask one the male staff to cut them for her.   I took that knowledge back to my delivery guy and instructed him to henceforth always cut the bands off the copy paper boxes and remove them from the office when he left.  It didn’t take but a couple of deliveries before the customer called and thanked me for being so thoughtful.  Is that customer service or being customer friendly?  We can easily say both but I prefer to say it is customer friendly.  I lost a good customer once because she wanted to do the majority of her business electronically.  She wanted to place her orders online, receive her invoices via email as well as statements, credits, etc.  She told me later that she was so busy she didn’t have time to chase down paper invoice copies, and the controller even preferred the electronic method because it was less papers to track and file.  I discovered this problem too late and lost her business.  It was several months later when I learned this after she had stopped doing business with me.  I thought I had all my bases covered and failed to ask her what special needs she had.  I eventually did win her business back but it took me nearly 2 years to do so and lost much revenue in the process.

I had a personal incedent regarding a credit for a product I had returned that took an absurdly long time to recieve my money back.  It took many phone calls and letters and over 2 months to get a credit.  I was highly irritated at the whole affair but it made me realize this was also of critical importance for my customers.   I didn’t really encounter a lot of return problems early in my business so I didn’t really have a policy in place.  It occurred to me that I needed to create a return a policy that was fair to my customer but also had some protection for the company.  I studied the successful habits of other hightly rated mail order businesses.  I chose these because they would have to make substantial efforts to win over wary customers such as I.  Most of my wholesalers policies were designed around the 30-day return window so I knew unless I wanted to re-stock the product or pay a hefty re-stocking fee this would have to be addressed.   Also how fast was I going to give my customer credit?  This was sticky because the wholesalers were not always very quick about credits either and this could potentially create another problem.  I decided to err on the side of the customer because in the final analysis if they lost, then I lost them and it takes a lot more work to win them back that it does to keep them happy in the first place!  So, here was my simple, no-hassle, customer friendly return policy:  The product needed to be in resaleable condition and in the original packaging (unless originally defective), returned within 30 days, no food products (breakroom snacks) could be returned (safety issue) and I would cheerfully give them full credit within 48 hours of my recieving their return.  I made certain the staff understood the policy and the credit memo’s were to be emailed, postal mailed or faxed promptly.  It was completely unfair of me to hold up the customer credit until I recieved my credit from my vendor because the customer held up their end of the sale and fulfilled my policy requirements.  The rest was up to me and my staff.  We had to promptly process the return and get the product back to the wholesaler.  I made it very clear to my wholesalers that I would be very proactive in the return process and voiced my expectations of them.  I rarely had any issues with returns because my staff was trained and understood the importance of this process.  If the 30 day window of return was near the end, then the account rep was responsible for picking up the product and getting it back to the facility quickly.  If they (the account rep) failed then the credit would be deducted from their commission statement but only if it could not be returned to the wholesaler or resold.  Exceptions can occur and those will have to be handled on an individual basis.  I received many compliments on my return policy and although returns were always, and I guess will always be, a PITA (Pain In The A!!) I knew with certainty that it would be a customer friendly experience. 

What else do you think creates a customer friendly environment?  How about a simple one, the way you answer your phones.   I am a fan of Zig Ziglar and when you call his company the greeter will answer “It’s a wonderful day at the Zig Ziglar Corporation!”  It does sound a bit hokie but I promise you that if all your employees answer their phones in a cheerful tone with the excitement of “It’s a wonderful day!” you will create an atmosphere of happiness and cheer with every call.  Don’t think your customers won’t notice either because the first time you fail to answer in this manner they will ask you what is wrong and where is the happy person that always answers they phone.  I used a similiar tone on my voice mail greeting and almost always the person leaving the message was capitvated by my enthusiasm.   I made a personal commitment many years ago that no matter how bad I felt or how bad a day I was having I would answer that “opportunity ringer” with cheer and happiness in my voice.  I still do to this day, my son even commented on this recently when he made note that when I answered my phone it was like flipping on a switch.  No matter what mood I was in or if I was under a deadline and feeling stressed, I would instantly turn into Mr. Happy when I answered.  “How can you do that?” he said.  I just smiled and said “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression.” 

I taught my customer service and delivery employees to take responsibility for the customer on every front.  To practice being proactive, not reactive.  To always treat the customer better than they would expect themselves.  There were times that the customer service person chose a method of satisfying the customer that would cost me money.  I would always put myself in that persons place and judge the action, not the person.  We would discuss the matter and see if a better, less costly solution had been possible.  I made a particular effort not to ridicule but only to evaluate and discuss.  Some times there really was not a better option but the most important thing to consider was the effect the solution had on the customer.  We can learn from our mistakes but we can rarely win back a lost customer due to poor service.  Actions do speak louder than words!  In those early days in business I had to make an impression in as economical way as possible and I succeeded, so can you.

One last note on being customer friendly.  If you’re the owner or occupy some senior management position in your company or business take the time necessary to go see the customers personally.  Senior management can be easily bogged down in paperwork, number crunching, meetings and other such things.  However, the perception you leave with the customer by making the time to sit in their office and listen to what they have to say is extremely valuable!  There is an opportunity to make an impression here that only a senior manager can do in a one-on-one environment.  Let those customers know that you care and this is evidenced by your presence in their office.

There is an old saying, “Kill ‘em with kindness.”  If we could only get everyone in business, all businesses great and small, to practice that little phrase it would make our world a great place to do business with! 

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