A Wall Street Journal article from last summer caught my eye. Titled “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” the article described efforts by large organizations such as Walgreen, Comcast, American Express and others to pay “more attention to customer service in an effort to increase sales and gain market share in the economic recovery.” The author cited a recent survey of more than 1,400 companies that found more than a quarter saying customer service would be the prime target of increased funding once the economy improved.
To which I silently responded, Duh!
I wonder if it occurred to executives at all those companies surveyed, as it did to me, that had they invested more money in - or not scraped it away from - customer service activities when the downturn hit, they might already be enjoying increased sales and market share. It’s a real simple concept. People like to do business with companies that make it likeable to do business with them.
People in the construction trades are especially susceptible to overlooking customer service. That’s because many contractors don’t really look at the people who pay them money as “customers” per se. Most think in terms of “jobs.” They gained the work at hand because they had the winning bid, or someone hired them because they had the skills required to put up top-notch roofing. They think of their business solely in terms of trade capabilities, not human interaction.
When human beings do come into play, many contractors think of the people they work for not as “customers,” but as building owners, or homeowners, or general contractors, or construction managers. Often these relationships can turn edgy due to the stress and uncertainties that attend any construction project. That’s when contractors not only stop seeing them as customers - they start to view them as adversaries.
This is dangerous thinking. No matter how you got the work, what job disputes may arise, whether you like the person or not, whoever pays for your services is a customer, plain and simple. You need to do everything in your power to make sure not only that you do the contracted work correctly, but that your customer finds you easy to do business with and would like to work with you again.
Companies of all kinds can get so wrapped up in trying to generate revenue that they neglect customer service. It’s easy to do, especially since many activities that fall into the customer service category may end up costing money, and in hard times everyone is looking to trim overhead. In the end this is shortsighted, because anything that detracts from customer service is bound to impact revenues in a negative way over time. Also, for the most part, customer service is not expensive.
Running a business can get pretty complicated, but customer service is not. You don’t need an MBA to master it, and it costs little to nothing to implement. It’s a matter of attitude and simply applying the Golden Rule to your policies and procedures that relate to customer interactions.
Most important of all is simply to make customer service a priority, and train all your people - including work crews - on how to behave when dealing with customers. Stress the importance of showing up and starting work on time. Tell them not to smoke when talking to customer personnel, and to avoid the griping and grousing that attends so many lunch break conversations. Set an example by being civil and polite in all jobsite conversations with your foremen and crews, and make sure they understand that this is how you expect all jobsite business to be conducted even when you’re not around.
Ever walk into a retail store and stand around waiting while some clerk avoids eye contact while finishing up paperwork or some other chore? That’s a good example of anti-customer service. A better way is to make it an explicit company policy that employees ought to drop whatever they may be doing at any given moment in order to respond to a customer request. Some important tasks might get delayed, but this rule states loudly and clearly that nothing is more important to your business than your customers.
Something else is important - stretch the definition of a “customer.” A company owner may be person who writes your check, but the office clerks and trade crews he or she employs also qualify as customers. So do the people who work for other subcontractors you encounter on the job. It’s in your interest to ensure that your people do not antagonize them.
Stretch the definition also to include inspectors and other building officials, along with engineers and architects, suppliers and anyone else who might be encountered on a jobsite on any given day. They don’t directly write your checks, but they are persons of influence with the power to either embellish or stain your reputation with the customer who does pay you money.
Consider establishing customer service goals and rewards, such as restaurant certificates or bonuses to crew members who avoid customer complaints and/or generate customer testimonials. Develop a job review process so that after completion, you go back to the customer to find out how things ran and what you could’ve done better.
Years ago, I interviewed Angie Hicks, founder of the “Angie’s List” consumer referral service for home repairs. One of the things she told me ought to be burnished on the walls of every trade business.
As you might expect, plumbing companies are among the most prevalent on Angie’s List. I asked her what were the most common complaints she sees about plumbing service firms. Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie’s List members, plumbing contractors generally don’t get hammered in this area. “It’s the little things,” she said.
“Getting people to return phone calls, showing up for appointments - that’s what our List members mostly complain about. The little things make a big difference. It’s especially bad this time of year [late May] when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy,” said Angie.
Those “little things” are absolutely within your control. Nothing can prevent you from returning calls, showing up on time, being polite, telling everyone in your organization to wear a smile when dealing with customers, and to treat everyone they encounter on a job with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihood depends on doing these things just as much as it does their ability with the tools.
Humans are imperfect and mistakes will happen on any job. But it’s a lot easier to overcome those mistakes when the people who employ you look at your firm as easy to do business with.