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How organizations become customer-centric

A special message from Jorgan teucH, CXO of Aweall Corp.The best way to become customer-centric is to prioritize the value of your customer. It’s not just about what you sell, your marketing strategies or even the value of your products or services. To be profitable and successful, the focus goes beyond the obvious, and filters down to the manufacturers, the product designs, how the merchandise is supplied, and eventually down to the cost of manufacturing.

There’s a plethora of “buzz” words out here to describe true customer engagement; some prefer the use of customer-centric, customer experience management, customer profitability or even customer value, but the bottom line, no matter what your description, is to place the customer needs in front.

Some companies believe that customer-centric only applies to service industries and only for those service representatives who directly have contact with consumers. Some companies are even convinced that high scores on customer service surveys are true evaluators of a customer-centric organization, but that is not necessarily true. Actually a successful customer-centric organization has figured out how to prioritize cost and quality to a customer, but also works with every other aspect of the seemingly endless process of manufacturing and delivery to assure the maximum service to someone with the least amount of disappointment.

Let’s use the example of Zappos since few of us can argue that this customer-centric organization doesn’t present an exemplary experience for their customers. This high volume organization uses customer service agents who have had extensive training and can inform, delight, and deliver that “wow” experience both online or by telephone. The price of their merchandise meets the competition, and customers know they are receiving value, and the latest trends, all of which are carefully monitored. Customers can track the quick and reliable delivery. In today’s world of social media and especially Twitter, delivery woes can play havoc on a branded image. Even the condition how merchandise arrives makes a profound influence on customer satisfaction, which again filters down to the high standards of the distribution chain of Zappos.

At Zappos the customer is always the focal point, and their technology creates convenient online ordering, and there are few contingencies to preclude any customer from returning, for free, merchandise that doesn’t fulfill their expectation. Combine that with a social web of team members who filter complaints, questions, and compliments, the company provides a stellar example of prioritizing the value of their customers.

photo credit: Torley

Panera Bread 2010 “25 Customer Service Champs”

Panera Bread is a casual restaurant that owns and franchises 1380 bakery-cafes. The Panera Bread establishment in Palm Beach Gardens is attractive and offers free wifi, which is where I am writing this blog post.

There is no alcohol or grease here, and I have often printed off coupons to use, but I must warn you they are very strict about expiration dates. They offer freshly baked breads, pastries, sandwiches, salads, and soups during breakfast and lunch. Chairman and CEO Ronald Schaich has stated that the drop in wheat prices last year has been helpful in avoiding any price increases, but claims that the quality of products at Panera are of the highest priority.

So we have a few of Panera’s policies that set them apart from other restaurants, and that includes antibiotic free chicken, no trans fat, many natural ingredients and an impressive list of whole grain breads, but does that have a significant impact on customer service and the Business Week’s award?

Actually the company’s customer service award can be attributed to the attentiveness and concern for the well-being of their associates. Panera kept employee hours steady when other restaurants were cutting hours. Panera also provided cash bonuses for hourly workers as well as management incentives. When I checked the employment page, I noted that employee benefits are comprehensive ranging from complete medical, dental coverage to pension, and disability benefits.

Their philosophy of “happy employees” has brought in more customers. When the general restaurant traffic has decreased nationally by 4%; Panera boasts that their business has increased by 2%. Panera’s attitude towards their employees can only stress the importance of employee satisfaction delivering and contributing to customer satisfaction. In my own experience, I have been to this establishment several times, and I have never seen anyone behind the counter or even wiping the tables seemingly having a “bad day.” It certainly seems the Panera “way” is a success.

photo credit: stevendamron

How to build great customer relationships

If you pick the top three companies known for their extraordinary customer relationships; Nordstrom, Amazon and Starbucks, it’s pretty easy to dissect their redeeming qualities. Nordstrom is known for their incomparable attention, Starbucks is renowned for its generosity to its employees and the personal touch, and Amazon uses small teams who are empowered to solve problems without having to ask permission of a superior.

Consumers still want to buy from real people and want to buy and associate with people and businesses who carry similar values and good will. Nordstrom, Amazon, and Starbucks didn’t develop their customer relationships over night and have successfully been able to target their main consumers.

If someone asks you who your main customers are, the most logical place to start would be with existing customers. Consider who has bought from you in the past, and look for trends whether it be socio-economic, common interest groups, age, or gender. If you are just starting out and have no customers, check the competition, or launch an online or newspaper advertisement. Consider other tactics and perhaps speak to a sample target audience or do a survey, either online or regular mail.

Building relationships over long periods of time require consistency. Compare it to resolutions people make each January to exercise regularly. It all goes great for the first few weeks in January; the treadmills and step machines are “waiting line only” but as February rolls around, the silence in the gym is deafening again. The same goes for the mailers, e-newletters, blog updates, direct mailers, and personal follow-up phone calls. As the year progresses, and you don’t get any responses, you stop, but the most popular reason to buy a product is need at a particular time. If you are there, the need is there, you will get the customer, but you have to be consistent.

Customers really don’t want to work for what they want. We are a highly mobile society now with a lot of options available to us; not like the old days when businesses shut down at a certain hour. The Internet 24/7 has a compound influence on your target audience, so meeting all the criteria is imperative. Make it easy for the consumer, provide exactly what they need when they need it, go beyond what is expected, make it convenient and at a reasonable price, and your customers will follow.

photo credit: USACE Europe District

The Hiring Push Checklist

Given the economy, this is an oddly timed post for a lot of companies, but believe it or not, there are still many companies that are growing quickly and that still need to hire people. These companies need to know how to hire the right people and to do so quickly. Rapid growth is not an easy thing to deal with, so the more prepared companies are, the better. Here are some quick tips on how to prepare for a big hiring push:

Train other employees on how to interview.
During periods of normal growth in most companies, human resources handles a majority of the interviewing and of the hiring. When they need to hire more people, more people need to be trained on how to do the interviews. Human resources should work with supervisors, senior employees, and other managers on how to interview potential employees and then begin using them to do the actual interviews.

Hire an administrative assistant to take care of the busywork.
Scheduling interviews, responding to applications, following up on paperwork, etc. is an annoying, but essential part of the hiring process. The HR department should hire an assistant or someone similar to take care of this. That way, the actual interviewer can focus on the real work of reviewing applications and hiring.

Have checklists for the entire hiring process.
The entire hiring process should be completely laid out before any hiring push. Everything from application submission to the candidate’s first day of work should be outlined on some sort of chart or document or checklist. With a system in place, there is less guesswork, which makes it much easier for a busy HR department to get its job done correctly and efficiently. Each candidate should have a paper and/or digital file and each part of the process should be kept together, so it can be easily referenced and addressed.

Formalize processes.
Again, with the goal of making it easy for additional people to help, formalize existing processes to make sure people will be able to step in and help.  No more ad hoc interviews, no more informal scheduling, etc. Write the processes down so other people can help out. 

Continue to refine.
As the hiring push continues, the person in charge of HR should be focusing on how to refine the existing processes and to make them more efficient.  If they can come up with something that saves 10 people 20 minutes a day in one hour, it is a lot more efficient than them spending an hour interviewing a candidate. Think about the long term and the scale of the operation and keep that in mind. Doing so will make the hiring push a lot easier in the long run.

The Multi-Generational Workforce

I was talking to the person in charge of customer service at Constant Contact, a company that provides email marketing services, today and started off the call with my usual question of “what are your challenges?” One of the answers, handling rapid growth, was not a unique challenge – lots of companies deal with it (it’s probably one of the best challenges to have). The other one, though, was a new challenge that I hadn’t really heard before: dealing with a multi-generational workforce.

What Constant Contact has experienced is a difference in career expectations between different generations. The company has noticed that its new employees who are often members of generation Y want to move through their careers much more quickly than those that are members of the boomer generation or generation X. He explained to me that the boomer generation is a lot more content in one job for several years (assuming growth potential is there) than a gen-Y’er. Gen Y’ers want to move through the company quickly – they’re looking to move around the company and experience different aspects of it.

While these generalizations obviously aren’t true in every single situation, it seems to be the general trend. There have been lots of studies examining the different ways members of different generations look at careers and what it means to have a career path. Constant Contact did their own research and had to make some changes in their existing policies in order to be able to adapt to the different expectations among their employees.

Firstly, what they aimed to do was ensure that the best people for the job got the job, regardless of how long they’ve been at the company, how much experience they have, etc. The company used to have a policy that essentially said employees had to stay in a job for at least a year before moving to another position. Overtime, the policy changed into a less formally enforced guideline. Today, the company looks less at the time an employee has put into a particular job and more at how much the particular employee understands the customers, the product, etc. It takes some employees five months to get that holistic understanding, whereas it takes some employees two years.

Coming to the understanding that time at the company doesn’t necessarily reflect how qualified someone is or is not for a certain job is an important understanding for rapid growth companies to have. Rapid growth companies don’t have time to let their best potential employees stay in one job for a year before moving up. Rapid growth requires flexibility, and as a result, flexible policies. It’s difficult for rapid growth companies to succeed if things are set in stone and can’t change as the company changes. Getting to a point where policies are flexible requires a management team that understands the importance of flexibility.

Does customer service come naturally to you?

There are a lot of small web startups and companies out there where customer service seems to come naturally to them. They provide fairly good to amazing service quite consistently and have never really thought about customer service in much detail. They never read a book on it, they don’t read a blog like Service Untitled, etc. It just comes to them without too much effort.

I’m not sure how this is or why it is, but a few things I’ve seen and noticed are:

The key people care about their customers.
There is a difference between knowing/caring about customer service and caring about your customers. The key people (usually the founders and early employees)  in the companies where customer service comes naturally may not really know about customer service as a business function, but definitely know and care a lot about their customers.

These companies are more often than not transparent and open.
Companies that seem to get customer service are more often than not open and transparent. They communicate openly with their customers, partners, employees, etc. and let them know what’s going on.

They respond quickly and mean it.
When these guys and girls reply to their emails or answer the phones and say they are sorry about your inconvenience or something of that nature, they almost always mean it. They care and want to make you happy.

They have passion.
If there is one thing about the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, is that they are passionate about what they are doing. If they don’t have the passion (and it’s usually fairly easy to tell if they do or don’t), they aren’t going to make it. The said entrepreneurs need a passion  for their product or service, for what they are trying to do, and most importantly, for the customer. Customers (or whatever you want to call them – users, patients, clients, etc.) make the world go around companies profitable, so you better be passionate about them.

It doesn’t stay that way.
Call me a cynic, but I’ve never seen it stay the “customer service comes naturally way” for long. Small companies that seem to have a natural talent for customer service need to start working on it more as they get larger. Once you start hiring people you don’t know to support your customers, a lot changes. At that point, you need to start working on formalizing hiring and training procedures and dare I say it, write policies.

By the way, many of the same things apply to people who are great at providing customer service naturally:

  • They care about the people they are helping and want to help them.
  • They are open and honest.
  • They are genuinely empathetic and caring.
  • They are passionate about what they do (helping customers).

What do you think about this? Does customer service come naturally to you and your organization? I am positive the last two words of “It doesn’t stay that way” is making startup entrepreneurs cringe, but they are a necessary evil.

Be proactive and boost the bottomline. Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I stated (rather boldly) that you could boost your bottomline by being proactive with your customer service. I stand by that and will even support that statement today.

Here are the ways the 5 companies/situations I mentioned could help the companies either make or save money:

  1. If Lexus can fix the problem for an in-warranty car before it becomes serious, it could save them thousands in part replacements.
  2. The web hosting company not only builds a better relationship with their customer, but prevents possible outages and downtime, which can be costly to web hosting companies.
  3. The email company could identity a problem and fix it before it becomes a disaster (no email for a week!) and/or can see if the customer is having trouble, has switched to a new provider, etc.
  4. If the customer is evaultaing the software and can’t get a feature to work, the chances of them purchasing goes way down. Proactive customer service can help make that purchase more likely. Plus, if only a knowledge base link is sent, the interaction isn’t that expensive and could probably be automated.
  5. If the customer isn’t using the more powerful or unique features of the software, they are more likely to defer to a competitor. Explaining what those features are and even guiding the customer through how to use them can help keep customers and let them get the most out of your product.

And the Dell/HP scenario with the bad hard drive? There are benefits for the companies there, too:

  • It takes a lot less time to backup a hard drive before it dies than it does to spend all the time trying to get the data back after it dies.
  • The customer learns a lesson about the importance of backups and how close they could be to total data failure without actually having the negative experience (which they very well might blame HP or Dell for – even if it isn’t their fault.)
  • If the computer is out of warranty or the item isn’t covered in warranty, the company can sell the customer a new hard drive.
  • The company builds a relationship with the customer and helps promote the image/feeling that the company is there for the customer and aims to make their life easier.

All of these boost the bottomline.

What do basically all proactive customer service expeirences have in common?

  • They help improve customer loyalty and the customer relationship. This is the huge one from a customer service perspective.
  • They help fix problems or address concerns before they become more serious, costly, and/or time consuming.
  • They combine high touch and and high tech.
  • Employees are able to spend their time helping customers before they get mad, angry, upset, frustrated, etc.

It’s been a while since I’ve added a new category to Service Untitled. However, yesterday there was a new category added and it’s all about proactive cusotmer service. It is something that I am going to try and talk a lot more about.

Little Things, Big Differences are about improving customer service with minimal change, today. Becoming proactive is about changing customer service with a lot of (but well worth it) change, tomorrow.

Now, go be proactive.

Scaling Customer Service

Scaling customer service is something that comes up time and time again. I was talking to an executive at a very interesting company today. The company is fairly large (close to 2,000 employees) and as they have grown larger, it becomes harder to scale their customer service.

1. Customer service is not technology.
The executive I spoke to is very technical by training. He was surprisingly well versed about the challenges related to customer service and how to handle them. A lot of technologists (and people in technology companies) have a hard time accepting the fact that scaling customer service is different than scaling technology. You can’t just buy new servers or put three or four really smart people at it and it’ll get done. Working with people is hard and customer service is all about the people.

2. Scale the management team.
The metaphor I used was as companies hire another 100 frontline people a month, they still keep the same number of managers and executives. This does not work! Set a ratio (1 senior executive for every 100 frontline employees) and stick with it as you grow. Keep hiring and promoting managers and executives as you grow.

2.5. Don’t promote exclusively from within.
Many, many companies refuse to hire people into management and other senior positions. For a lot of reasons, this makes sense. For an equal number of reasons, this doesn’t make sense.

  • When you promote from within, you deplete your internal talent. You need people to continue being shift supervisors and if you always promote your best shift supervisors to VPs, it won’t be good.
  • Some people are good at their job, but not good at the new job. I’ve seen situations when fantastic CSRs get promoted to more manager type positions and they do terrible. Some people just aren’t good in management or leadership positions. Others are.
  • When you hire people from elsewhere, it brings an outside and new perspective to the company.

3. Use mentor based training.
Mentor based training is great. It scales from 3 or 4 employees to 50,000 employees. Use formal, mentor based training as your company grows and it should work out okay. The post explains the best practices for mentor based training and it works!

4. Invest in hiring and training.
As a company grows, it needs to invest heavily in hiring and training. Increase the size of your HR staff, dedicate more managers to hiring, hire better recruiters, improve the employee referral program (important!), and so on. Encourage executives and existing staff members to offer jobs to qualified people. Don’t limit that pool to just job seekers, either. Offer jobs to people are prominent in your industry (journalists, consultants, speakers, etc.), people who already have jobs, and people in similar jobs, but different industries. You’ll get a lot of nos, but that’s okay. (No is only the beginning of the conversation). It’s necessary to do that as you grow and something that will be well worth it in the end.

5. Don’t let the message get diluted.
This company has done a tremendous job at articulating their corporate culture, which is very customer service focused. If they keep that message present and continue to make it an important aspect of their company, I am confident that they will do okay.

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