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With so much product parity today, the service level of an organization can prove to be a crucial competitive advantage. Customers will migrate to where they receive better service—or where they perceive to get a better value experience.

People patronize large, no-frill discounters but will do so knowing that the reduced service level they receive translates into cost savings for them. In the final analysis, it’s all about value—and customers want the best value for money, time and effort.

The customer service experience is a crucial element that can strengthen the relationship between the client and the brand. An effective customer service strategy that empowers staff with the necessary skills to provide outstanding customer service is an imperative, and when integrated with an effective CRM system, can make a substantial difference to the level of service today’s competitive business environment demands.

The Service Equation

Service can be reduced to the following equation:

Service = Expectation – Experience

Thus, service is the difference between what customers expect and what they experience. If they expected to be served in five minutes and were indeed, they would rate the service ‘satisfactory’. However, if they waited fifteen minutes, the service would be ‘unsatisfactory’. Had they been taken care of in under five minutes, the service would be rated ‘excellent’ (or at least, ‘better than expected’).

Ten Strategic Levers for Better Service

Here are ten strategies to optimize the customer service experience:

  1. Remember the service equation
    Find out what client expectations are. What is it that they want and need? It would be fruitless to invest in resources that ensure all calls are answered by the third ring, when this may not be important to the customer; perhaps delivery time is what they value most. Greater service levels invariably cost more, so the optimal level of service has to be identified—otherwise, it can negatively impact your bottom line.
  2. Walk a mile in their shoes
    Find ways of seeing the world through the customer’s eyes. Focus groups are an effective and inexpensive way of doing this. Regular online surveys could be sent out as well (there are many available that make it easy to construct and analyze) or clients could simply be called post-service and asked about their experience. Keep in mind that needs change and that surveys should become a regular feature with a set date on your annual calendar.
  3. Hire smart.
    Although a large portion of customer service skills can be taught, there are just some people who cannot connect with others within the time allotted for business communication. There are various levels of interaction between a service rep and a client:
    a) The first is a brief introductory greeting where the consultant introduces themselves and the company.
    b) The second level is a discussion of the offer at hand and what the trade entails.
    c) The third level is the sharing of information that tells each party a bit more about each other outside the ambit of the trade being discussed. This could be as superficial as the weather, or in cases where there is an opportunity for rapport, how the business is doing generally, or even: ‘how are things with the family?’

When people connect on all levels, time matters less, and both parties are left with a satisfactory feeling of being ‘served’.

In many industries, of course, there is no time for building anything more than superficial relationships, so the right people need to be hired – reps who can conclude a satisfactory transaction in the time available. Hiring someone who cannot ‘get out the starting gate’ with just the right amount of warmth and efficiency will be a waste of resources. It’s vital to remember that:

  1. Service follows strategy.
    The investment made in resources to offer the optimal level of service must be guided by your overall business strategy. If clients perceive the service level to depend on the speed of service, then this would indicate that the appropriate systems are in place with the supporting CRM technology and most crucially, with people who are trained to meet the demands of service by the customer.
  2. Knowledge is power.
    There is nothing worse than customers being shunted on the phone from one person to the next, often going in circles and eventually landing up back with the person they spoke to in the first place. Automation allows for calls to be routed to the department that is most suited to the inquiry, be it service, sales or accounts. The person who takes the call first must ensure that they take responsibility for ensuring that the customer is adequately served. Some companies have adopted the ‘single call’ approach where the person who answers the call provides the solution, whether it means calling the customer back with the answer later.
  3. Always upskill
    Before a restaurant opens, the manager briefs the staff on the specials of the day, and which items should be promoted. This process holds true for every industry because even if what you’re offering is a constant, the environment changes continuously. Briefing the sales team in this fashion allows them to focus on key levers that can make all the difference in the service experience.
  4. Culture eats strategy for breakfast
    This quote attributed to Peter Drucker underscores the importance of the role that culture plays within an organization. There can be the best intentions with the most effective strategy, but if there is no culture to support it, it cannot succeed. This anecdote about the actions of a regular FedEx employee accentuates the role that culture plays in allowing the company to provide the service it promises: to get the package delivered on time no matter what. Being snowbound, this FedEx employee who had no managerial powers, took out his credit card and rented a helicopter to ensure the parcel got delivered on time. After all, their slogan is “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”
  5. Celebrate success
    Serving clients to the best of one’s ability is not the easiest of occupations. It can sometimes be a tedious task where the odd reward is little more than a thank you from the client. Success needs to be celebrated, but more importantly, the type of behavior you want to instill must also be rewarded and reinforced. This is an opportunity for you to inculcate the culture you want in the organization by rewarding the actions that support it. To ensure positive reinforcement of desired behavior, there should be an annual plan that recognizes and rewards certain milestones on a regular basis. This does not exclude personal events such as employee birthdays, but when a company also celebrates its clients’ birthdays, it is indicative of a strong culture that builds relationships both inside and outside the company.
  6. Measure and monitor
    Although customer satisfaction is a subjective matter, it is an important metric – after all, the customers are the subjects. There is a challenge, however – people sometimes find it difficult to articulate how they feel. Regular follow-ups are important, as they can often reveal flaws in the service experience. Many people tend to give high scores for a number of reasons, such as not wanting to offend the staff or the fact that service had already been rendered and that it is convenient to give a high score. However, a consistent 9 out of 10 on some attribute is a warning sign that something is amiss and should be investigated.
  7. Look after the basics
    Employees need to be held accountable for their actions – how they interact with the customer and how they maintain an organization’s standards. Regular performance reviews should be a cultural norm, where the following data can be reviewed:
    a) The volume of service encounters they have had (i.e. the amount of work done)
    b) Client feedback on service satisfaction surveys
    c) Their line manager’s evaluation of their performance
    d) Objective measures such as timekeeping
    e) Subjective measures such as their effect on company morale.

In essence, customer service should not be seen as an independent undertaking, but an essential component of what a business offers. The CRM system should be used not only to track the metrics of client behavior but also as a tool to build the relationship – people do business with people they like and who like them.

Service is determined by client expectation. However, that means that the organization can also be proactive by setting expectations. This applies to all aspects of service. When done right, great customer service can be a very rewarding experience for employees and clients alike.