Preparing to Meet Customers' Services Needs and Requirements in an Uncertain Economic Environment

(Originally published in the May/June 2004 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

For many services organizations, 2004 is every bit the same as 2003 - full of uncertainty in an unpredictable economy, and an increasingly volatile world. However, despite all of the uncertainty and volatility, it is important to remember what we all do for a living - that is, we serve our customers by making their jobs - and their lives - easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. This is what services organizations do, and that model has not changed over the past couple of years.

So what does this mean? It means that we, as an industry, still need to provide our services to our customers - even better, faster and more efficiently than before. The marketplace has no tolerance for anything less than superior service and support, and if your organization does not already provide it, they'll find another organization that does!

Everyday, businesses wrestle with economic downturns and upheavals, staff reductions, fluctuating stock prices, an unstable global market economy, and all of the business and personal challenges that result from their ongoing attempt to make everything work together in harmony. What better can we do as an industry than to provide our products, services, and support to our customers in a fashion so well-designed and executed that we actually make their lives easier just by doing so? No more artificial "bundles" of services offerings or "lemon-freshened" software packages; no more late response times or missed deliveries; no more sub-par service performance; no more surprises; and no more excuses! Today's business environment demands that services organizations get their respective acts together, manage their service delivery processes better, and provide a full complement of the types of services and support that are meaningful to customers.

But, how do we do this? There are many ways - but it will take a lot of work, and you may not be able to do it all by yourself. First, you will need to take a hard look externally at exactly what your targeted market base requires from your organization, addressing such questions as:

  • What are our customers' specific product, service, and support needs and requirements? How do they differ from our non-customers?
  • Does our organization's current service and support portfolio match our customers' needs? All of their needs? Their real needs?
  • Where are there gaps between our present offerings, and our customers' future needs?
  • What additional value-add, premium, and/or professional services do our customers require - but cannot get from their current vendors? (Even from us!)
  • How are the changes our customers' organizations will be going through change their needs for service and support in the future?
  • What vendor options and alternatives do users presently have? What newer options and alternatives will they have tomorrow?
  • Who are the leading vendors that are presently supporting our marketplace, and what are their respective strengths and weaknesses?
  • Where do we stand with respect to the competition? What will it take for us to "make the cut" from a prospect's "long list" to its "short list"?
  • Why does a customer choose us in the first place? Why do the customers we don't get choose another vendor? Do we have any "kick-out" factors?
  • When the dust settles, where do we want our organization to be positioned? In fact, how "dusty" are we compared to the competition already?
Second, you will also need to take an equally hard look internally to determine whether your organization's infrastructure, operations and processes are sufficiently in place to attain your - and your customers' - total service delivery goals, addressing such questions as:
  • Are we organized effectively to deliver the right products, services, and support; with the right features; to the right customer segments?
  • Is our organizational structure effective in managing all facets of the business? What do we need to do to make it stronger?
  • Do we have the right processes in place to deliver everything we promise? How can we best measure whether they are really working?
  • Are our customer support personnel adequately trained - and empowered - to support our customer base? Can they provide "knock your socks off" service?
  • Do we provide our sales, service, and tech support personnel with all of the tools they require to get their jobs done? What more do they need to become more effective?
  • Do we have all of the Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) systems in place that are needed to run our business? Where are there gaps?
  • Are we focused enough on the customer? Is our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) approach good enough - and is it working?
  • Are we tracking and reporting the right things? Do our managers have all of the data and information they need to make effective decisions?
  • Do we have a formal plan for growing our services and support capabilities along with the changing needs of our customers?
  • Do we have our internal act together? How can we ensure that everything we do yields a well-defined, positive, and measurable outcome?
In the dozens of times we have conducted one of our joint external (i.e., market/customer) and internal (i.e., operations and organization) client assessments, we have never failed to uncover the mirror-image problems and opportunities that typically result from the same root causes. In fact, this joint approach is extremely effective in providing the necessary guidance to the client organization for matching its service and support offerings exactly to the market's needs, and recommending the specific operations, organizational structure, and processes to deliver them most cost-effectively. Don't make the mistake of focusing too strongly on only one side of the issue - internal or external. Your customers will only ultimately be satisfied if you also have the internal processes and capabilities in place to deliver what they want.

These are turbulent times, and the market has never been more serious about its choices - nor more educated in its ability to distinguish between the leaders and the "wannabes". More users are getting more information - faster - about your organization - and your competitors' - than ever before. Through the Internet, and an increasing number of web sources such as RealMarket Today!, AFSMI's Resource Guide, crmguru.com, and many others. And, they're acting upon the information they receive! If your message is not adequately articulated - and communicated - to the appropriate market targets, you could be "dead in the water" before you know it - even if your products and services are actually better than the competition's! The market is looking for your message, and the worst thing that can happen is your competition communicating it to them first - ahead of, and instead of you!

Look around, and you will no longer see any underachievers or "dead wood" competing in the marketplace. They're all out of business, or about to disappear - one way or the other. What's left - or what will be left, once the dust settles - are solely the true performers - the services organizations that both "get it" - and "do it". Be one of the organizations that "gets it" - and goes after it! Don't follow your competitors - follow the needs and requirements of your customers! And make sure that you utilize all of the external and internal resources that are available to you!


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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