Better Customer Service is Also the Greatest Gift You Can Give Yourself
Whenever I meet with builders, architects, dealers, contractors or distributors, I always ask them, “Who are your best three suppliers?” Without fail, they can tell me the names of these building materials companies without a second thought. When I ask them, “Why are these companies the best?” one of the reasons they always mention is customer service.
Even when another company offers them a lower price, they tell me they are a lot less likely to move from a company with great customer service.
The Best Approach to Great Customer Service
When you think of customer service, it’s easy to simple imagine a person in a cubicle, who may or may not be located in North America, answering calls with a headset. Great customer service is a lot more than that.
A Company-wide Commitment
The strongest customer service is a top-down, company-wide commitment where every employee realizes that they play an important role in being your customer’s best supplier.
That means everyone who interacts with the customer, whether it’s in person, by phone or email. The focus needs to be on “How can I best help this customer and give them a great customer experience?” Ideally, this means going above and beyond what the customer expects.
The goal should be to leave the customer so impressed that they tell others about their experience in dealing with you. What if you called a customer back the next day to check in after they had a technical or installation question to make sure everything went smoothly?
Even a Truck Driver
Most manufacturers don’t have their own trucks to deliver to customers. One of my clients does. The driver understood that his company had a new commitment to being their customers’ best supplier through customer service.
On his first delivery to a new customer, he took the time to buy a box of doughnuts to give to the customer’s people who would be receiving their first shipment. The purchasing person called my client’s sales person to thank him and tell him how impressed his employees were. They had never had a supplier do anything nice like that for them before. What a great way to start a relationship in an unexpected way.
A key part to this, and one that will be a challenge to many building materials companies is empowering and trusting their employees. That truck driver didn’t have to get permission; he just knew it was the right thing to do and that the company would reimburse him.
Many companies try to do something like this, but it is over-planned, such as “Let’s buy a bunch of cheap hats and give them out to everyone.” That kind of gesture loses the sense of sincerity and takes the employee out of the equation. Rather than being engaged in the customer satisfaction experience, they take the attitude that their job is just giving out hats and really has nothing to do with improving customer service.
Killing Customer Service
Encouraging everyone to go the extra mile and bypass the processes and rules is a challenge. I spent time listening into the customer service calls of a building materials company. They would frequently get calls from a contractor on a job site who needed a part.
Since the customer service department was located in the same building as the plant, the part the contractor needed was sitting a short walk down the hall from where the customer service rep was working. But the rep was not allowed to walk down the hall, put the part in a FedEx package and ship it so it arrives at the customer the next day.
Instead, they had to enter the request into the system, which then had to ascertain whether they or the customer had made an error in the original shipment. If it was the fault of the customer, the customer had to place an order for the part. It was then finally placed into the system as an order at the end of the line.
The contractor was left with an unfinished job, an unhappy customer and a costly callback. This contractor is looking to find a better supplier.
Empowering Sales Reps
Companies with the best customer service empower their sales reps to make things right. I met with a distributor who bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of products from a manufacturer each year. He was bidding on a large project that he really wanted. At the last minute, he was told by the manufacturer that they were out of one of the products he needed.
The product was on order from China and would be shipped by sea, which meant it would arrive several weeks after the contractor needed it for the job. These are small products and the quantity needed probably weighed less than a hundred pounds.
The rep was not allowed to air freight the order, even if the customer would pay the additional cost. He was also not allowed to see whether he could find the parts from other stocking locations. The distributor and the manufacturer lost the entire order to a competitor even though the contractors wanted to order from them.
Once again the system and the need for control got in the way of serving the customer. These companies are watching the nickels and dimes while letting dollars disappear.
Websites are Another Customer Service Problem
Your building materials customers now find you online before you find them. They are far down their path to purchase before they reach out to you. You can’t afford to have your customers be unhappy with your website.
My favorite quote from a contractor is, “I want to be able to do business in the evening sitting in my Lazy Boy chair in my underwear. Why do building materials companies make it so hard for me to get the answers I need from their websites? Why can I go online and design a car, change colors, wheels, and features and get every question answered? Why can’t a building materials website deliver the same experience?”
It frustrates your customers when they have to wait until the next day to contact their rep or your company to get the answers they need. I am seeing customers start to move their business to the companies with the most helpful websites.
Remember, great customer service is defined not by you, but by your customers. To stay on top, you need to be constantly checking in with your customers and asking, “How are we doing and what can we do better?”
When you are ready to invest in your website, involve a group of your customers in the planning and development. If you are serious about having your website be the “go to” site in your category and making it a key part of your customer service experience, be prepared to invest what it will take.
Customer Service is Defined by Stories
What stories do your customers tell about your company? If they are not telling stories about how you went above and beyond to solve a problem or just did something unexpected, you are not delivering great customer service.
A Simple Definition of Great Customer Service
The job of every single one of your employees should be to do whatever they can to have your customers say, “No one cares more about my success than (your company)!”
Why Great Customer Service Is So Difficult
For most companies, customer service is viewed as just another expense. It is easy to measure the costs of customer service, but hard to measure its contribution. Great customer service needs a leap of faith that is hard for many business people who are only comfortable with what they can measurably improve, such as cutting costs.
Great customer service requires letting go of a bit of control. Trusting and empowering employees to make the right decision on the spot runs counter to how many people define best business practices.
But it’s more measurable than you think. The measurements are simply sales growth and loss of fewer customers to competitors while giving customer service a large part of the credit.
You can read more of my customer service recommendations here.