It started with a single, simple, question put to me by a good friend: “What are the key qualities needed to be a leader in customer service?” There are, of course, a great number of existing text books, essays, blogs, etc. that address “best practices” in customer service, so answering the question with an easy answer was, well, easy. Too easy. So, as I often do, I stepped back and took a look at the question in its true context.
The question was an outgrowth of the merging of a continuing series of conversations that I’ve been involved in regarding both business leadership and customer service. As I began considering the question in the context of these two somewhat independent discussions, a single point began to crystalize in my mind: Good customer service – industry leading customer service – involves all aspects of a company. It’s not just a customer service issue by itself, it’s a mindset or business ideal that is shared by all aspects of a company.
“Great Customer Service is a corporate mindset, not a job description”
Looking at it from a different perspective, leadership in customer service can be thought of as a trait of companies that have strong corporate leadership – leadership that values a high level of customer-centric focus, strong business ethics, team empowerment and corporate-wide cooperation. I’ll emphasis the last point in particular, because customer service is but one single piece in what I’ll call the customer cycle – the series of events and processes that exist in most successful companies.
With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of traits of companies that I consider to have outstanding customer service – those companies that are not only leaders in customer service, but influence the business and customer service models of their competitors and the industry.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: Leaders in customer service include their prospective customers in the development process, helping to refine both product features and availability/pricing.
A great product idea is only a winner if it is high quality, addresses a customer need at the right time, in the right place and at the right price point (think of how many products failed because they were either ahead of their time or late to market – ditto products that didn’t fit the value/dollar realities of the market at that particular time).
CUSTOMER ACQUISITION: Leaders in customer service don’t just sell a product, they sell the value of the entire company, including customer service.
Contrast two competing vendors with exactly the same product at the same price and the same quality. The vendor that introduces the prospective customer to their client service organization – or their specific customer service representative – will win the business every time.
CUSTOMER SERVICE: Leaders in customer service place value in, and empower, their customer service representatives.
Employees in the customer service organization are representatives of the firm, not “agents” as they are often tagged. As such, they represent the company and are often the most important (and in many cases the only) person that an actual end user will interact with. Representatives who are empowered have the ability to follow guidelines, not scripts. They can escalate when they feel necessary. They listen to what the customer has to say and in turn, they are listened to by their corporate management, and the knowledge they gain from their customer interactions aren’t just mined, they are sought out and encouraged on a personal level (and then fed back to product development, marketing and sales teams).
Leaders in customer service also recognize that each customer is different, and their needs are different. In turn, they offer a variety of means for a customer to receive support and assistance, including every social media venue where their customers are active (both listening and in two-way communications). They also provide different levels of support, allowing a customer to choose as little or as much personal contact as they require.
CUSTOMER RETENTION: Leaders in customer service recognize that great customer service leads to great customer retention, and great customer retention leads to great customer advocacy.
The value of retaining a customer can never be underestimated – especially if you listen to them, learn from them and adapt your products to their changing needs. I remember the days when we would set up “VIP” user groups, get everybody together once a year at a major conference and tell them how much we appreciated them.
“Customers who are partners are also part of your sales team”
With social media, leading companies are encouraging the creation of online user communities that are open to all and discussion, praise and dissent are encouraged and shared. Customers that feel you are a partner are much more likely to offer advice and suggestions to products, rather than look for alternatives. In turn, they become your best customer advocates, influencing others to consider your product through their own product loyalty and satisfaction shared in these open (not just for customer) forums.
MY THOUGHTS. YOURS?
These are just some of my thoughts on the characteristics of companies that are leaders in customer service. I believe that if they have these characteristics, while they may not be the largest vendor in their market, they are most likely the most influencial and will ultimately rise through the market-share ranks.
Are there other characteristics or “must have” items for a top-notch customer service organization? Absolutely. Let me know what you think some of those are – I’d love to hear your opinion on what qualities are needed to be a leader in customer service.