Some day you will get to the point where you have, as Aaron Ross would say, nailed your niche in the market. Customers will come flooding in and in an instant the focus will shift out of the tunnel vision that is customer acquisition. Instead, you will be forced to turn your attention to the beast that is customer success. When you arrive at this precipice I hope, for your sanity and for the well-being of your company, that you will have already built a customer-service focused culture. But for those of you who are procrastinators – I urge you to set aside a few minutes and read the rest of this blog – your company’s future will depend on it!!
In order to create a culture of great customer service, a company’s service and support organization must be built from the ground up, and as I mentioned above, be built as early as possible. Never, ever consider customer success as an afterthought or a reactive necessity to address customer issues as they arise. Excellent customer service must be part of your company’s DNA. So first action item – set customer success as the highest priority for your employees and focus on providing a “great customer experience”, starting from yourself as the CEO all the way down the line.
Never, ever consider customer success as an afterthought or a reactive necessity to address customer issues as they arise.
The largest portion of the budget pie in any startup company is allocated to developing the product(s) which will continue for a number of years. However, during those early days after you have delivered your product to the hands of your first customers have your dev team on standby to address customer issues. Why dev? They will be the most familiar with the product right out of the gate.
As your company evolves and the products mature prepare to bring on a service and support team as you will eventually need to provide dedicated customer service. Have this done before you have the official launch of the product on a large scale and delivered to customers. This way support can be featured as a key component of the product offering.
Don’t skimp on supporting the product. After all that you have invested heavily in the developing the product, don’t leave the door open for disillusioned customers to damage its reputation. As an added bonus, having an established customer service organization from the early stages of product evolution keeps the development team’s energy and focus on delivering the product on time.
In Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, his campaign strategist, James Carville identified the economy as one of the 3 key pillars of the campaign by coining the phrase “the economy, stupid!”. Paraphrasing this famous quote, it is appropriate to state that one of the key pillars of any successful company is “the customer service, stupid!”. Just as in our personal lives, helping those around us to be successful and happy will create an infectious internal culture of fulfilled employees who serve their customers with purpose.
Zappos is one of the best customer service and support success stories. The online shoe retailer was incorporated in 1999 and reached 1 billion dollars in annual sales by 2008. A year later they were acquired by Amazon for 1.2 billion dollars. Zappos’ service delivery mantra is simple: “WOW Through Service”. Their stories of customer service have become that of urban legends. As a result, Zappos enjoys a very high level of customer satisfaction with a high percentage of repeat customers that not only continue to purchase products regularly through Zappos but continue to recommend it to their friends.
A satisfied customer is a loyal customer, which ultimately leads to referrals. On the other hand, a dis-satisfied customer inevitably leads to the high-potential of reputation and financial loss
A satisfied customer is a loyal customer, which ultimately leads to referrals. On the other hand, a dis-satisfied customer inevitably leads to the high-potential of reputation and financial loss. You may win the battle, but you will lose the war! When dealing with an agitated unhappy customer, your team’s objectives should be to achieve trusted advisor status by quantifying the problem; only then it is reasonable to request payment or contract information. The problem may get resolved but if during the resolution process the customers’ experience was cumbersome, they will not recommend the product or your company to people within their personal or professional network.
At this point you should be asking yourself: how does my company become best of breed when it comes to customer service, and where is the blue print to achieve this without breaking the bank?
Look no further than the following guidelines for building your customer service organization.
- It is not my problem but I’ll own it! – Your service and support team have to be the customer advocate representing the customer inside the company. Your customer must feel comfortable with the person supporting them and trust that they are there to help solve the problem.
- Stay close to customers that have problems - Customers with problems can provide the most valuable insights into product usage. As stated by Bill Gates the co-founder, former CEO and Chairman of Microsoft Corporation: “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”.
- Empower your services and support organization – These are high-touch, front-line positions that require the outmost flexibility to address and resolve customer problems. An example of one company that implemented this type of practice is the Delta Hotels chain. Delta defined a process called “Power to Please” where they empowered all employees to be innovative and take risks in fulfilling customers’ expectations, and doing whatever it takes to meet their guests’ needs.
- Treat your customer as you would want to be treated – You have probably encountered a situation where it appears that the wall of bureaucracy is impenetrable. Then, magically a person (“hero”) appears who is willing to guide you thru the process and help you solve your problem. Each service and support person needs to be the “hero” that swoops in and makes your customers feel good about the outcome.
- Frame the conversation when talking to a customer - Conversations with your customer must be structured. This way you can get to the point of solving the problem quick! The key elements to be covered in this conversation include:
- Start with a re-assurance that you are committed to helping solve the problem and will continue to work on it until its solved
- Actively listen to the problem
- Work diligently to achieve resolution of the problem
- Get confirmation that the problem has been solved to the clients’ satisfaction (i.e. Does the resolution of the problem meet yours and their satisfaction? Are there any other issues or concerns that need to be addressed at this time?)
- Measure your customer’s satisfaction – Find out whether your customers will be likely to have a positive opinion about your company or not. A fast and simple solution is to implement the Net Promoter Score (NPS) process. With this method, the customer is requested to rank the service on a scale of 0-to-10 by answering the question: “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?” The results are divided into 3 groups: Promoters (scoring 9 or 10), Passives (scoring 7 or 8) and Detractors (scoring between 0 and 6). The NPS score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of “Detractors” from the percentage of “Promotors”.
- Don’t be afraid to fire a customer – Unfortunately there are certain situations (hopefully rare) where even though the service and support team followed all of the necessary guidelines and offered excellent customer service and support, there is no easy way to agree on a resolution that will satisfy the customer. In this case it is best to cut your losses, and severe the relationship with the customer. These are examples of situations that have led us to decide to “fire a customer”:
The customer abuses the customer service and support personnel
A technically challenged user that is not able to use the product
A two level relationship in which the system integrator and the end user cannot agree on the resolution process
- Protect your company’s reputation – Being a category leader does not eliminate the possibility of a customer abandoning your company for an alternate offering. Exposure to negative comments or reviews on social media can lead to the tarnishing of your company’s reputation in a very short period of time. It’s the role of the customer service and support team to proactively protect your company’s reputation before a customer gets to the point of public scorning.
- Make the service and support policies a living document - Customer service and support polices are a living, breathing evolution of best practices. Consider the United States Constitution, which since it became operational in 1789, has undergone 33 proposed amendment, of which 27 of them were ratified by Congress and the requisite number of states. If the US Constitution can be amended, company policies should follow with flexibility.
Customer service and support should be considered as the grease that make the wheels run smoothly, without squeaks. Create this culture, define the policies and provide the ability to let the service personnel do their magic in order to keep customers happy.
On a cautionary note, be mindful that while you want to be accommodating and supportive of your customers, it is necessary to be consistent with all of your customers and not offer the “flavor of the day” policies based on conflicting inputs from customers, as this will ultimately lead to confusion and further frustration in the eyes of your customers.
BizRule#11 Stop carrying the donkey on your shoulders!
There is a fable about an old man, a young boy and a donkey walking into a village. Strolling along with a donkey beside them, a few villagers encourage them to ride the donkey. The little boy climbs on top of the donkey and they continue their walk. A few other onlookers complain that the boy should let the old man ride the donkey. Now the little boy walks alongside the donkey and the old man rides the donkey. Reaching another group of villagers they chide the old man for riding the donkey while the little boy is walking. At this point they decide to carry the donkey. They fetch a big stick and tie the front and back legs of the donkey on each side of the stick. They place the stick on their shoulders and start walking while carrying the donkey. They soon reach a river and the somehow the donkey becomes loose, falls into the river and drowns.
The take away from this story is that in situations where there are multiple conflicting opinions and perspectives, attempting to make everyone happy may be difficult, and in some cases detrimental.
Clearly define your views and have a defensible position that you can service and support. Unless consequential circumstances warrant revisiting your original views, do not change your perspective based on comments from different individuals.
Consider the situation where, due to poor service and support issues, a customer develops an un-favorable opinion about your product, and by association, about your company. To alter this perception, you must first address the specific problems raised by the customer. Then, and only after the customer is satisfied and starts using your product as advertised, can you commence rebuilding a relationship and create a new perspective in their minds. Though challenging, these situations can also lead to long-term loyalty. Anyone can satisfy a customer when things are going well. It takes a strong and committed company to address and resolve problems.
On a final note, all people will not agree with you all of the time and you cannot please all people all of the time. There is a famous saying by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, in which he stated that, “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. Paraphrasing this quote reminds us of the fact that, “you can satisfy all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot satisfy all the people all the time”.
Edited by Jamie Keeley, Marketing Manager, L-SPARK
Want more advice on operating a startup and more? Check out the BizGuides section of the L-SPARK blog.