Questions to Ask Yourself About Customer Service

(Originally published as a a Customer Service column in the
December 2000 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

The margins on hardware, software and services revenues continue to decline due to increasing competitive pressures, and customers are becoming more knowledgeable about the growing number of support options available to them. As a result, customer service is now an even more important factor in establishing and maintaining a strong position in the overall services marketplace.

Everyday, more services organizations are relying on customer service to differentiate their otherwise commodity-like offerings in order to bring customers in, keep them happy, and make them loyal. However, while it is not "rocket science", any services manager can look like an "Einstein" if he or she embraces the rudimentary aspects of customer service throughout all phases of services marketing and promotion, sales prospecting, writing the contract, and managing the customer account over time.

While there are many ways to go with respect to defining and establishing a strong customer service mentality within the organization, the most direct path to determining whether your organization is on the right track is to test yourself on a number of questions that will indicate how well positioned your organization is from a customer service perspective.

The basic questions that any sales, marketing or customer service manager should be asking, and a corresponding set of guidelines for addressing each of them, may include:

  1. Does your organization have a formal customer service or customer care department? Does it have a well-defined customer service mission or charter? Is it adequately staffed and empowered? Surprising as it may seem, some services organizations have no formal customer service or customer care infrastructure. Even in cases where other departments may be "managing" portions of the company's customer service activities (e.g., handling complaints, responding to inquiries, etc.), there may still be no formal corporatewide procedures or processes for managing customer service. As a result, any customer service activities provided are probably not performed in a consistent manner. Further, in cases where customer service is performed essentially as a "secondary" activity to the department's otherwise self-defined "primary" activities, lack of adequate staffing and empowerment may become major inhibiting factors.

  2. Is there a formal process for handling customer service activities? Are specific responsibilities defined and assigned? Is there trackable ownership? All functions within the organization require formal processes to ensure effectiveness. Documented processes are even more important when they involve customers and other external parties (e.g., vendors, dealers, etc.). But processes, in and of themselves, do not get the job done. They must be followed by specific personnel, with specifically defined roles and responsibilities, in order to be effective. The capability to track who actually has "ownership" of each customer service activity as it is being performed will be critical in measuring overall company performance, as well as providing an ongoing record of success (or failure) in meeting the company's customer service goals and objectives.

  3. Does your company management promote and encourage customer service? Are there incentives for doing it right, or sanctions for doing it wrong? Regardless of where your customer service personnel get their primary inspiration, they must still be fully supported by management at all levels. However, this is clearly a case where actions speak louder than words. Management must do everything possible to articulate and communicate its philosophy of customer service throughout the organization in order to empower its customer service personnel to get the job done - and reward them for being successful at it.

  4. How interactive is your organization with the customer base? Does it communicate with them enough? Does it provide them with a means for giving their customer service input and feedback? A one-way street for customer service is never adequate. A services organization's customers must also be able to articulate and communicate their concerns to the organization, and they will need to know how to do so. Accordingly, the organization should have a formal process in place for soliciting and receiving customer service input and feedback from customers. The process should be well-documented and promoted, easy to access, user friendly, and sincere. Most importantly, all communications coming from the customer base must be quickly and satisfactorily answered. It is generally also a good idea to summarize some of the customer feedback and related company responses in a communicated format such as a company newsletter, or on the company Web site (e.g., FAQs, Customer Service Update, etc.).

  5. Are your customer service personnel properly trained? Do they have all of the necessary tools to get the job done? Just because certain individuals are "good with people" does not necessarily mean that they are fully equipped to handle all types of customer service situations. It may mean that they have the "right stuff" - but they will still need to receive the "right training." Even with the proper training, a customer service representative is often only as good as his/her ability to get the job done. This requires access to all of the necessary customer service and support tools, such as guidebooks and procedure manuals; software systems that allow them to log in calls, and track how and when corrective actions are taken; and state-of-the-art communications capabilities.
As you can imagine, there are dozens of additional questions that will still need to be answered before you can be certain that your organization is addressing all of its key customer service issues. However, these five questions should be at the head of your list in order to make an initial assessment of exactly where your company stands with respect to its customer service philosophy.
William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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