Opinion Column

Customer service vital for business success

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

This topic has been written about before – and will likely be again.

This is because at least once a year I get passionate enough about local customer service experiences that I cannot contain myself. Despite all of the research evidence – all of the professional development articles on the subject, all of the training programs attended – we as consumers are regularly faced with widely different levels of customer service when we do our business – from the outstanding to the abysmal. And business owners take note – it is your staff that deliver these experiences and your staff that either bring us back for more or drive us away from your door for a long time into the future.

Two recent local stories to illustrate my point, and generally being a positive person, let me start with the outstanding. A simple lunch meeting started with a challenge that the major portion of the menu would not be available until the evening hour, despite a pre-lunch telephone call confirming otherwise. The waitress, sensing our disappointment and readiness to go elsewhere, quickly took it upon herself to address the situation with the owner, convincing him that the commitment should be honoured. Her unrequested intervention on our behalf, the flexibility of the owner, supplemented by excellent service and attention during the meal, rescued the business encounter. We had the meal that we came for, recognized it with an appropriate tip and I was impressed enough to tell this story. Well done. We will be back.

Now the abysmal – same week, same town and an unpleasant interaction with a cashier in one of our larger commercial establishments. This person gave the clear impression that this was the last place she wanted to be – no smile and the same interpersonal acknowledgement that she likely gives to reading a nasty email. When I dared to question the accuracy of the bill for the few items I purchased, she pulled out a calculator, punched in the numbers, grunted a little, and then corrected the total amount by about 40 per cent. There was no explanation – and certainly no apology. It was certainly not because the items were on sale with regular prices in the computer. After taking my payment, she silently went on to another task – leaving me without a bag and the need to stuff my purchases into my pocket. Abysmal customer service – and I won’t be back.

A focus on exceptional service starts at the top. The vision statement of a small local hospital makes it abundantly clear where it stands by the very visible statement of commitment – “Every patient’s health-care experience will be exceptional”. It is not always perfect – but everyone tries their hardest and they succeeded often enough to earn awards for the highest level of patient satisfaction scores in the province that year for any size hospital – and not coincidentally, also an award for the highest level of employee satisfaction scores in the provincial health system that same year. Every business has customers, clients or patients – and everyone appreciates being made to feel special.

A commitment to creating an exceptional customer or client experience is the only way to succeed in business today regardless of whether you are in the for-profit, not-for-profit, private or public sector. As business owners and leaders – it is your responsibility to set the service bar high – and keep it there through your employees. You are responsible for the quality of the customer experience in your business, day in and day out. You hire the staff – you train them, your coach them, you pay them. The business owner or manager in my second example above is ultimately responsible for the fact that I may never go there again. If customer service skills are not high on the leader’s selection criteria, they can be assured that their business is not realizing its full revenue potential.

There are tools in the consulting marketplace to help you. (i) Supplement your interview and selection process with proven assessment tools to give you information on the degree of fit between the customer service requirements of your role and the interpersonal skills and behavioural tendencies of the applicant. For a very small investment, you can get valid reliable information on some important applicant characteristics and tendencies that will likely never surface in an interview situation. (ii) Commit the effort to reach a leadership consensus on what constitutes an expected level of service in your organization.

There is a set of 50 customer service yes/no questions that we regularly hand out free to business owners and leaders – with the simple assigned task of reaching a leadership team consensus on the best answers for their business. The question tool is free for the asking – but we are often called in to help facilitate the raucous debate amongst the leaders as they strive to reach consensus. This lack of clarity at senior levels only leads to employees not getting a consistent message in terms of what is expected.

Businesses have clear standards and processes to deal with financial matters, safety, staff security, product stocking levels. It is time that they also implement the same level of clarity with regards to the customer experience. It goes right to the bottom line.

Larry Schruder is president and co-owner of The Delfi Group, Pembroke and can be reached at larry.schruder@thedelfigroup.com.