More than Service with a Smile

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, when Wright and Rede was still just a twinkle in my eye, I read a fair amount of business planning books. There is one that still sticks with me to this day. It contained, by far, the worst piece of business advice I have ever read. The book was one of those you-will-write-a-business-plan-while-you-read-this-book books. Part of the writing process involved supplying the name of your CFO, attorney, and accountant. The author then went on to proclaim "If you can't afford to pay people to fill these rolls then you can't afford to start a business." You know what I did? I finished reading that book and took notes. I often refer back to these notes when I am trying to decide how to not run my business. I wish I had written down the title of this opus so I could contact the author and tell him what an asshat he is, but justice cannot always prevail. That being said there are three things that you really must have in order to have a successful business. A solution to a problem, a strong message (back story, motivation, good images), and excellent customer service. I'll talk about the first two in later posts but, having experienced some lousy customer service today, I think I'll go ahead and address it before all the steam finishes venting from my ears.

Customer service is not about dealing with customers that have a problem. It is not a skill you use only when something goes wrong. Look at those two words. It is the way you provide service to your customers. The fact of the matter is that unless you are selling the cure for cancer (and the only one selling it) people have a choice to buy from you or not.

Have you ever been to a hot new restaurant where the staff thinks they are God's gift to the service industry? Maybe they were wearing ripped jeans, too much pomade,rolled their eyes because you didn't realize the draft list was written on a postage stamp by the front door,  and were looking down their nose at you because you didn't want to try the fried eel testicle appetizer? I don't care how good those eel's nuts might have been, I'm not going back. This doesn't just apply to the restaurant industry. No one wants to hire an electrician that doesn't show up to work. They won't donate to a charity that can't get their name right. Time Warner Cable. Seriously, Time Warner Cable.

I think this problem is so endemic because it is so hard to scale and requires such a huge investment. It is an invisible investment too. If you own a shoe company, and spend a ton on R&D for a new shoe design, when you are done you have a new pair of shoes. When you spend a ton of effort on customer service you end up with a bunch of people who are willing to continue to do business with you. Which is why so many companies are huge one minute and forgotten the next. If you can't do customer service right then you have a steadily shrinking pool of available customers who are willing to do business with you. No matter how tasty your eel testes are.

So what should customer service look like? Do you have any regular customers? Do you know their names? Do you ever find yourself saying, "Hi Randy (or Rick, Lori, Walter, Frank, Phoebe, Joe, Troy, Brian, Jesse or Nathan)" Do you know what is going on in their lives? Do you care? Because that is what real customer service looks like. A failure in this arena isn't that you couldn't provide something they were looking for and don't get a sale. A failure is when you start to treat them like a number. The customer isn't always right. Sometimes you just don't have what they are looking for or your business doesn't provide a service that they need right now. That is fine. If you are doing your job right they will come back later.

Because ultimately, until our iPhones rise up and become our automaton overseers, customer service is about people. I know that sounds like some crap the manager at your first job shoveled at you, but it is true. When you start to see your customers as people (people who are willing to part with the money that they worked hard to earn, people who are trusting you to do your job right, people who are willing to let you occupy some tiny part of their lives) then you are starting to provide some real service to your customers.

So where to start? If someone asks for your business card (or about your business), shake their hand and tell them your name. Hopefully you will get theirs in return. Remember their name. Write it down if you have to. Get to know them. I do this using normal human means of communication such as "How are you doing?" Go through the trouble of remembering what they say.

Avoid giving canned answers. Yes, if you meet a bunch of people in a day you will start repeating yourself. To avoid this, think about the words that are coming out of your mouth.  I know this guy who sells pies at a local market. He is the master of canned answers. He has one for every situation. I occasionally buy a pie from him. If he weren't there I'd buy a pie from someone else. Because he is just some guy that sells pie. I know another guy named Hunter. He sells almond milk at the same market. When I first met Hunter he shook my hand and asked about my business. We have since talked about owning our own businesses. When he isn't at a market I'll check his Facebook page to see where he will be selling next.  I've known Hunter for years. I've watched his business grow. We have had beers together. I give a shit. See the difference?

In the same vein, never use a form letter. Nothing pisses me off more than a form letter. Take the time to use real human thoughts when writing an email. Your customers can tell the difference. I don't care if you have answered the same question a thousand times before. Put it on your F.A.Q. then, but take the time to give everyone a little consideration. There is no short cut for customer service. Expect to invest one third of your effort in it. There is no way to become more efficient at it. By it's very nature it is an investment of time and consideration.

It's okay to tell someone "no". This is a hard one. If you aren't the right person for the job you are doing your customer a disservice (and abusing their trust) by telling them you can do something that you can't. When you tell them "no" use real human thoughts while doing so. See above. Also, always offer a real explanation as to why. They don't need the gory details of your life but explain, for example, that the type of material you use wouldn't work well for the job. They'll come back when they need something you do offer.

If you have to hire employees that will be interacting with your customers take the time to educate them properly. That way they can give intelligent answers to peoples questions. The worst thing you can do is tell an employee that there is always one right answer to a question. I take that back, the worst thing you can do is give them a script. It's demeaning to your employee and your customer. Train your employees to act like humans.

Finally, always remember that you are a real human being interacting with other real human beings. Treat them the way you would want to be treated. Give them your attention. When you start doing that you  stop having customers. You have people that will help hold your event tent down in a thunderstorm, recommend you to a shop that could carry your goods, cheer you on when business is hard, tell you that they'll wait until you are happy with your bag design to buy one (instead of buying from someone else), be your ambassadors, your marketing department, bring you a beer after a long show, and proudly tell people that they knew you back when and still know you now. Because people, unlike customers, have more to offer than just the cash in their wallet. Customer service is the act of investing in your people. When you invest in your people what they give back is priceless.