Customer Care When Things Go Wrong PDF Print E-mail

BY PAUL DORRIAN.

O
ne of the most effective ways of generating customer appreciation and possibly even loyalty is by implementing genuine corrective measures that will put matters right when events go awry. When business is running smoothly, it is easy for a company to claim that its customer care consciousness and application is of a high standard. The real measure of the company's willingness to care for its customers however, is its reactions to problems that occur before, during or after the sale has been made. No matter how attentive to customer care a company and its people think they are, it is inevitable that there will be times when events do not work out as planned. Yet most business organisations overlook this critical part of customer relationship building, failing to realise that a problem put right could be worth in loyalty terms much more than the initial value of the sale. Customers tend to trust the company that corrects complaints and problems to the customers' satisfaction much more than the company that doesn't, and more so if no problem has ever occurred in the first place. The relationship with the customer has therefore taken a curious twist. For when a problem has been rectified to the customer's satisfaction, the supplying organisation is viewed in a different light. In the customer's mind that company and its people have truly been tried and tested. The customer knows that if things go wrong, all will be well. The relationship has been enhanced.

What is of prime concern in today's marketing environment is the plethora of advertising slogans, positioning statements and claims that make all sorts of promises to customers about the type of service that can be expected when doing business with the company concerned. Considering the continual message bombardment that customers from all walks of business life are currently experiencing, (and have been for many years), and as advertisers battle one another for position and share of the customer's mind, advertising as an element of the marketing mix is under immense pressure to perform in a more objective manner without sacrificing creativity. It is also universally accepted that customer care is the new competitive edge. A company can make all the claims about customer service that it wants to in its advertising and promotion, but the proof of the pudding is still in the eating, and a customer will reserve judgement about a company until he or she has experienced that organisation's offering and how well it treats its customers. Failure to live up to claims made in advertising could result in a loss of credibility, which, if it happens on a wide enough scale could mean that advertising expenditure is being wasted because customers refuse to believe what they are being told. They know better than the commercial which states that service is good. They experience the real service, not that which is portrayed in the never never land on the screen. Sadly enough, the anomaly in South Africa today is that many marketing generals ensure their advertising and promotional campaigns carry messages about service excellence, whilst customer care in this country remains pitifully inadequate relative to other countries in the world, many of whose companies have arrived on our shores to do business.

Against this backdrop, sales and frontline personnel have a critical role to play in ensuring the relationship with the customer remains good, as it is they who are often in a position to rectify the customer's problem or complaint. Attitude and initiative are therefore vital ingredients in making this happen, but only if the company's culture empowers these people to create service excellence. Management style and customer care are inextricably linked with respect to the level of service that sales and frontline people are able to provide. Although some changes are in evidence, probably as a result of increasing pressures from overseas investors, management style in this country is still very old school, still very autocratic. In the highly competitive global business environment many highly successful organisations have embraced the notion of empowering their front line staff to make customer satisfying decisions within carefully thought out and participative parameters. A lesser approach is considered a competitive disadvantage. Yet many South African management teams who are busy striving to be globally competitive are reluctant or afraid to go the empowerment route. Instead, many hold on to the anachronistic belief that management knows best and no one must question its style. Don't do as I do, do as I say. is a common attitude still resident in many of the old guard organisations who made good in the days of the siege economy. It may have worked well when there was no-one to compete with. It won't work in an environment where competition in many domestic and international markets is getting tougher and where overseas participants are used to continually searching for creative ways to develop a competitive edge.

What is also particularly worrying about this outdated way of thinking is that so much is lost at the front line. Front line people whether they be sales representatives, switchboard operators, delivery personnel or whatever, are in a marvellous position to advise management as to the real problems, concerns and issues that customers have. By empowering properly selected, trained and dedicated front line staff to make customer satisfying decisions, management will ensure that customer complaints and problems have a better chance of being dealt with in an efficient manner. This is in contrast to the customer who has to wait for a staff member to obtain permission from his or her manager to follow a particular course of action. There is of course no guarantee that the manager will concur with that person's assessment of the situation and may order a course of action that may conflict with customer reality, or fall short of customer delight. This causes delays and adds to customer frustration and perhaps even resentment at the treatment he or she has received. This is not to suggest that frontline people will always be accurate in their assessment of the customer's specific needs at a point of negative interaction. What I am suggesting is that because customers often approach these staff members with problems and complaints, especially the sales representative who made the initial sale, those people should be given responsibility for rectifying negative situations. Should the frontline person concerned be unable to create a high degree of customer delight, for whatever reason, there should be sufficient backup to assist in this endeavour.

However, for this to materialise, there needs to be a strong sense of teamwork in the organisation, and herein lies a common problem in many of our organisations. Teamwork in customer care can only work if senior management dedicate themselves to the concept and are seen by all to be driving the initiative. One can talk about service vision, establishing a reward system for excellent service, monitoring customer service levels and all the techniques of trying to ensure customer delight, ad infinitum, but unless top management actually drives the initiative, and makes customer care a permanent part of the company's value system and way of doing business, there exists a great chance that customer care activities, normally started with great gusto and enthusiasm, will peter out. It is common practice for managers, particularly sales managers to use the reward system to assist with the achievement of sales targets. How often is there a celebration in a company when a customer has been saved because someone handled a complaint well or rectified a customer's problem, and exceeded customer expectations in the process?. How often are members of staff mentioned in despatches for correctly handling such issues? How many managers develop a reward system for the successful handling of customer complaints and problems that lead to customer delight? It's time to realise that motivating sales and front line staff to achieve higher levels of customer service has to encompass the entire relationship the customer may have with the organisation not just the initial sale. Saving the customer as well as the sale is good cause for celebration.

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul. Customer Care When Things go Wrong, Successful Salesmanship, March 1997.