Whatever Happened to Customer Service?

In the old movie, Miracle on 34th Street, the Macy’s Santa sends customers to rival store Gimbels for products that Macy’s does not have. After a management outcry, it then turns out that customers really appreciate this service and become more loyal to Macy’s than ever before.

Retailers today have forgotten that lesson. Everybody is looking to cut costs. Customer service is no longer considered a revenue generator, so it’s one of the first things on the chopping block when a retailer starts tightening its belt.

Good customer service is good business. It creates repeat customers. Repeat customers are what every retailer wants because it is far less expensive from a marketing standpoint to sell to a former customer than to bring in new customers.

Retailers no longer know what makes “good” customer service. The general feeling is that if the product leaves the store and does not come back, everything is fine. Customer service is only for the “problems” and the job of customer service is to make the problems go away at the least possible cost. The less interaction between the store and the customer, the better.

Superior customer service demands extensive interaction between the customer and the retailer. In my Internet company we look for every possible opportunity to contact and engage the customer. Once a customer has placed an order, the company will contact them at least four times during the 4 week period between the sale and the delivery. The first contact is to acknowledge the order and thank the customer for her (or his) purchase. At that time the customer receives information about the production and delivery process and they are encouraged to call if there are any questions. A second contact is made shortly before production is complete The third contact is made when the product is actually shipped. At this time, there is a detailed description of what the delivery process will entail. There is also a tracking number provided so that the product can be tracked by the customer during the shipping process. The fourth contact is after delivery when each customer is contacted to find out whether they are happy with the product or whether some additional followup is needed.

When we receive a request for one of our free catalogs, we send it along with a letter noting that we also offer free fabric swatches and free design advice. When an order is placed, we acknowledge the order electronically, then send an email personally thanking the customer. We notify them when the product (in our case sofas) is about to be shipped. We notify them again after it has shipped. Most important, we contact the customer after the product has been received to make sure that everything is OK and that there are no problems. In doing this, sometimes there is a minor problem that the customer might not have mentioned but which distracts from the enjoyment of the sofa — for example a cushion feels too firm. We send out free, softer replacement cushions. The result is that instead of having a silent but disappointed customer, we now have a very happy buyer who enthusiastically recommends us to friends and family. The cost of the extra cushions is a marketing cost.

The secret behind outstanding customer service is simply to put yourself in the place of the customer. What would you want the company to do if you were the customer? Treat the customer the way you want to be treated.

1. Answer telephone calls promptly. It is amazing how grateful a customer can be when they realize they are speaking with a real live knowledgeable person who can answer their questions.

2. Respond to emails and phone messages promptly. All emails phone calls should be handled as quickly as possible, hopefully in less than one hour.

3. Be honest. It is amazing how often salespeople feel that telling the truth gets in the way of making a sale. If a microfiber fabric already has a stain protector built in and does not need the optional spray protector, tell the customer. Once you have saved them from spending an unnecessary $50, they will trust you completely and might even be willing to forgive minor glitches that may pop up. If a sofa won’t be finished by the promised deadline, call as soon as you are aware of the problem.

4. Under-promise — If a delivery will take 3 weeks, estimate 4. Customers are usually delighted when something is ready ahead of schedule.

5. Maximize contact with the customer. This does not mean sending frequent ads or spam. It means keeping the customer informed of the progress of their order up to and after delivery.

6. Be knowledgeable about your products and your company. If you don’t know the answer to a question, find out quickly.

7. Surprise and amaze your customer — give them something they do not expect. This can be as simple as delivering your product one week eaarly, or it can involve giving an upgrade at no charge. This is particularly important when an error has been made and you are trying to correct it. Go farther than your customer expects and they will change from disgruntled critics to enthusiastic supporters.

Retail stores have been cutting back on customer service for years. As competition grows and profit margins shrink, customer service is one of the first places to cut back. Everyone who has ever tried to call a computer company for technical assistance and winds up talking to someone from India knows the problem. Corporate bean counters forget that with good customer service you can earn better margins. You are not forced to fight over who can offer the lowest price. Besides, it’s just nicer working in a friendly environment. When you have happy customers, you have happy employees.

Jeff Frank, the author of this article, is President of Simplicity Sofas, a High Point, North Carolina manufacturer specializing in Ready-To-Assemble (RTA) upholstered furniture, small scale sofas and top-of-the-line customer service. His furniture is 100% Made in the U.S.A.   www employeeconnection net

Jeff spent two years working with Call for Action, a nation-wide nonprofit consumer help organization that specializes in assisting consumers with problems concerning fraud, consumer rights, and customer service issues.

Jeff is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on RTA upholstered furniture. He has been awarded five U.S. and 4 international patents over the past 15 years and his products have sold more than $10 million of RTA upholstered furniture in over 20 countries worldwide.

Simplicity Sofas is the result of Jeff”s latest design efforts together with designer and co-inventor Glenn Laughlin. The products have all the comfort and style of conventional furniture and can be assembled in approximately 15 minutes without tools. Jeff’s 13 year old son assembled his first Simplicity sofa in just under 7 minutes all by himself.