by Marjorie Steele, Editor for IQS
We’ve all had negative encounters with customer service. The cable guy shows up to an installation appointment four hours late; your phone service provider doesn’t care they overcharged you; your utilities company makes you wait half an hour on the phone to pay a bill, then they charge you an extra five dollars in “convenience fees”. What’s convenient about that?
Notice that there is usually a direct correlation between how bad a company’s customer service is and how much market competition that company faces. Semi-monopolies, like gas and electric companies, usually dominate the market with only a few exceptions, so you don’t have a choice but to wait for half an hour to talk to someone about your bill. Cell phone service providers have a small pool of large competitors, but their contracts and cancellation fees usually give them ample range to frustrate customers. The worst customer service I’ve ever encountered was with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) while working on my husband’s Permanent Resident visa (a.k.a. “green card”). Suffice to say their customer service hotline wait times were atrocious, their automated phone system was like a labyrinth, and their representatives were underinformed, unhelpful, and rude. Point: the USCIS is a government agency with absolutely no competitors and therefore absolutely no incentive to provide quality customer service.
Industrial manufacturers face a very different market. Few manufacturers have the luxury of being the sole provider of a certain product, with the exception of a few niche manufacturing companies. Competition between manufacturers is brisk, and even if you have the latest technological advances in engineering and manufacturing equipment, there are probably at least a dozen other companies that have the same. Branding, marketing and online visibility will help you stand out among these competitors, but, as Rick Brown commented on Recession Advertising 101, many companies fail to have “essential response tools in place” to deal with the business that comes in. And the last thing a manufacturing company wants in this economic climate is to have customers come knocking then turn away because they received little or no response.
So what are some of those business practices which cause customers to turn away before they can buy? Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your business:
- Does a prospect customer have to negotiate an automated message system when they call for a quote?
- Are prospects ever referred by the operator to a sales representative who is absent from his or her desk, forcing the caller to leave a message or hang up?
- Are sales representatives or engineers ever unable to answer a client or prospect’s question? Do they refer the client to someone who can, or do they just let the issue drop?
- Do customers’ calls ever go unreturned?
- Does your company deliver orders later than promised more than 30% of the time?
- Does your company receive many calls from customers complaining about faulty products? Are these issue dealt with swiftly, or do they linger on?
- Are customers ever likely to get frustrated over how difficult it is to place an order?
- Are sales representatives ever pushy, arrogant or slow to respond to customers and potential customers?
- Is a prospect or client ever more than 3 clicks (on a website) or extension numbers (on a phone system) away from placing an order or quote request?
- Are quotes left unanswered for days, or even weeks?
- Are price quotes that are sent to prospects followed up on after the quote is sent, or do your salespeople wait for the prospect to call them back in order to close the sale?
If your company can answer “yes” to any of these questions, there are very likely some “housekeeping” issues which need to be attended to. You can market, brand and drive website traffic all you like, but if customers have difficulty reaching sales reps, engineers, or receiving orders on time, those efforts, even though they may be effective, are not being maximized. Making sure customers and potential customers have ready access to not only fast, easy sales service, but also product after-service and product follow up is an essential part of properly marketing yourself. As Rick Brown put it, “it makes sense to get the ‘house fixed up before you invite guests over.’”
Try assessing how business and production in your company is organized. Make sure there is ample communication between sales, production and distribution, and make sure sales representatives are adequately trained. Give engineers the tools and skills to speak with customers on concept, design and price range. And make sure your production line is up to par, producing quality goods on or ahead of schedule. Does your receptionist take a lunch break, leaving no one to answer phones? Recruit someone around the office and train them to take over during that time so that no customer is frustrated by having to go to voicemail. If you employ a marketing agency, they can likely give you a ton of pointers to help your specific business improve and streamline sales, production and delivery. If you don’t employ an agency, try placing yourself in your customers’ shoes, and ask yourself if your business is one you yourself would solicit, and if the answer is “no” or “maybe”, fix it until your answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Sometimes rearranging the furniture and giving the house a good dusting is what really needs to be done – before the flashing neon signs go up.