Building and Maintaining a Satisfied – and Loyal – Customer Base

By focusing your service and support performance on the specific needs and requirements of your customers, you are much more likely to end up with a satisfied customer base. However, in order to build a loyal customer base for yourself and your company, you will need to go well beyond merely keeping them satisfied.

During the 1990s, a new philosophy of customer service was adopted by some of the more progressive services organizations – the philosophy of becoming an “interactive” partner with their customers by working closely with them to gain a better understanding of:

  • What products and services they use,
  • How they are being used,
  • When they are being used,
  • Who within the organization uses them,
  • What impact downtime has on their business operations, and
  • How they ultimately use their products and services to help them run their respective businesses better.

This philosophy has assisted many services organizations in “turning the corner” on their ability to provide “world-class” service and support to their customer base.

A true (i.e., interactive) services partnership must, first and foremost, be focused on the specific needs and requirements of the customer. However, by doing so, you will find that the ultimate outcome will likely be a “double-edged sword” in terms of its potential benefits to both you and your customers. For example:

  • You, and your company, will both stand to benefit significantly through an increased understanding of your customers’ total services needs and requirements, thereby leading to a better knowledge of what it will take to successfully meet them;
  • Your customers will also stand to receive higher – and more consistent – levels of service and support as a result of your increased ability to focus your attention on the specific areas that are most important to them; and
  • It will be easier for you to obtain more direct customer input and feedback in the future, resulting in fewer lingering customer service problems and quicker overall solutions in most cases.

There are many other benefits that can ultimately be realized through the establishment and maintenance of a customer partner relationship, but it must be a continuous and interactive process in order for it to truly succeed. It will require significant effort on your part – as well as on the part of your customers – and it will involve ongoing communications and interaction between each of the parties.

Partnerships require a great deal of work on both sides – first, to build them and, second, to maintain them over time. You must never lose sight of the importance of these partnerships, as once your customers believe you have “forgotten” about them, all of your credibility will be gone, and your service and support capabilities will become nothing more than a commodity provided to them by relatively interchangeable vendors.

You also need to focus your customer service and support energy directly on the customer. Having a customer focus means that you are always conducting your business in a manner where the customer does not have to make multiple calls, visit numerous web pages, or explain his or her problem to more than one person. In other words, you are conducting your day-to-day business in as responsive a manner as possible – with your customers’ best interests first in mind.

Best practices services organizations do not settle merely for customer satisfaction, but instead seek to gain customer loyalty as their primary goal. These types of organizations are typically focused more on the concept of “lifetime customer value”, rather than on a “quick fix”, quick sales, or generating a “one-time” satisfied customer.

By looking at your customers through this more broadly defined perspective, you will be better able meet their demands and needs over time, generate customer satisfaction, and build the foundation for customer loyalty. But, this will only happen if you are truly responsive to the customer. To ensure that you are, you should follow the following guidelines:

  • Listen to your customers; then make the necessary changes to the way you approach their needs based on what they tell you;
  • Use a variety of listening and learning strategies (i.e., LOTS) to continually obtain customer input and feedback reflecting their perceptions of your performance, matched against their needs and requirements, expectations, and preferences; and
  • Improve the way in which you support them based on the feedback you receive on a continuous and ongoing process.

It is very humbling to realize that no matter how good you are at customer relationships, you can always do better. The best advice you can follow is to:

  • Listen to your customers – you can’t know what they really want unless you ask them; and you can’t tell if they are truly satisfied with your performance until they tell you, one way or the other.
  • Once they tell you what they want, either respond to them quickly, or tell them when you will have an answer for them – and then provide them with the answer as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t hit your customers with any surprises; if you promise them “A”, then you need to deliver “A” – not “B”, or “C”, or “A-“, and then tell them it’s an “A”.
  • Confront all customer issues quickly, firmly, and as if they are the most important issues you will be facing all day – because they are.

Customers can oftentimes be very fickle – but generally only when the service and support they are receiving is erratic, inconsistent, or inadequate. However, if the customer service and support you provide is focused, consistent, and frequently perceived as being “over and above the call of duty”, then you will find your customers to be more than merely satisfied – they will be loyal.

It is once again very humbling to remember that your customers’ perceptions of your service and support performance may be only as good as the last service call you’ve made in their behalf. Despite an impeccable service performance track record over the past year or more, all you have to do is mess up just one time, and you may find yourself right back to square one.

Unfortunately, the converse is generally not true; that is to say that if your performance all last year was unsatisfactory and, all of a sudden, your last service call was perceived to be “superior”, don’t expect everything to change overnight – because it won’t. Customers have long memories – especially when something “bad” is involved.

The more loyal a relationship you and your customers have built over time, the more “forgiving” they are likely to be should you “mess up” on occasion. Partners do that – they forgive each other when there is reason to do so. Partners are honest, they rally to each other’s side when they are in need, and they work together toward the common goal of making their jobs – and their lives – easier to deal with. Otherwise, you’re just a vendor, and they’re just a customer – and they’ve got a handful of you, and you’ve got dozens (if not hundreds or more) of them. Establishing a good, strong, interactive services partnership makes each one of you more important to the other – and that essentially lays the foundation for a successful customer relationship.

In the most successful services organizations, the voice of the customer ultimately drives its customer support operations. However, acceptable customer service – from the customer’s perspective – generally requires cross-functional teamwork and processes on the part of your organization. Some of this will be entirely under your control, and some will not.

Accordingly, your role will be to take whatever is under your control, and apply it to your customers in the “real world”, in a professional and courteous manner, and with your own style of “human touch”. In this way, you and your customers will be able to work in unison toward common customer service goals and objectives. Your ability to provide them with seamless customer service and support will represent a good first step toward building and maintaining a satisfied – and loyal – customer base.

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Building a Process for Measuring – and Improving – Your Customer Service Performance

Whether your present performance is good, bad, or anything in-between, one thing is certain – it can be made better! Even the best customer service or technical support personnel will admit that they have some shortcomings in some areas, and that there could, in most cases, be some improvement made. And if you can see it yourself, you can be assured that your customers see it as well!

Some companies monitor their employees’ performance on an ongoing basis through the use of customer satisfaction surveys and/or field engineer skills assessments and performance evaluations. However, regardless of whether your company conducts these types of studies, it will always be your responsibility to measure your own performance, and determine how you may be able to improve it over time.

First, let’s look at the scenario where your company already provides you with regular (i.e., monthly, quarterly, annual, etc.) performance evaluations and appraisals. In cases where you receive regular feedback on your performance, you will already know where you are meeting your performance targets, where you are not, where you need improvement, and where you have problems.

However the results of these assessments may not tell you exactly how to fix things that need to be fixed, or resolve problems that are about to get out of hand. This is where you will need to take some additional proactive steps to ensure that your performance is always moving in the right direction.

There are some specific guidelines that you can follow, and we suggest that you use the following to conduct a self-assessment of your current performance levels:

  • Select the areas where you believe you can attain the quickest improvement – both on the basis of your own evaluation, as well as through the eyes of your customers. Be aware that you and your customers may not agree on which areas of your performance need to be fixed first, or which will require the greatest attention. Still, it will be helpful to look at it from both perspectives as you prepare a “list” of the specific areas that you will need to improve.
  • Elect to do something about improving the areas you have identified on your list. This is not the time to go into “denial” if either your company’s performance appraisals – or your customers – are telling you otherwise. Remember, there are no “perfect” service technicians out in the marketplace; everybody makes mistakes, everybody has some problems that need to be worked out, and everybody can stand to benefit from some improvement. But, no improvement can ever be made if you do not first identify what it is, and; second, elect to do something about it.
  • Leave behind any of the old conventions you used to use in the past if they are no longer applicable. If you have been in your job position long enough, you have probably seen how some of the things that used to work every time only work some of the time today; things that used to work occasionally don’t work at all anymore; and things that only used to work “once in a blue moon”, now, don’t even make sense! For example, in the past, it was easy to tell a customer, “Sorry I didn’t get back to you any sooner – I only just got your message late this afternoon after the close of the business day.” This excuse used to work; however, with voice mails, e-mails, texts and cell phones, this is no longer an excuse in the customer’s eyes. On the other hand, with new conventions that did not even exist 15 or 20 years ago (i.e., wireless communications, Internet, etc.), you have new opportunities to improve your customer service performance – but, again, only if you use them!
  • Follow the guidance provided to you by your employer, your Human Resources department, and any of the various training programs you have been able to participate in over the course of your career. Listen to constructive criticism from those who are in a position to provide it; and take it to heart when you conduct your own self-assessment. Remember, it will be in the best interests of both your employer and your customers for your customer service capabilities to improve. However, it will be difficult to improve your performance entirely in a “vacuum”, and that is why you will need to continually follow the leads that are often provided by these key internal and external influences.
  • Assume that everything you do can be improved. You know it; your employer knows it; and your customers know it. This does not necessarily reflect a shortcoming in your performance capabilities; all it means is that whatever you are doing, you can do it better. Sometimes this requires further education and training; sometimes it simply requires fine-tuning what you have already been doing; and sometimes it simply means doing some things better, faster, or “cleaner”. Albert Einstein always felt that if he were “smarter”, he could have gone well beyond the formulation of his theory of relativity. Nobody believes Einstein was a slacker when it came to physics – he just felt he could do better. And so should you!
  • Strive to make the necessary adjustments for improving your customer service performance capabilities. Some of these adjustments may be major (i.e., new training, re-training, certification, taking additional courses or classes, etc.); some may be relatively minor (i.e., taking more notes or documenting what you do on a daily basis better, following up by telephone more often than you have historically, etc.); and some may just work themselves out as a result of your ongoing experiences with customers. But, whatever the case, you need to understand that the way you do things today will not necessarily be the way you do things tomorrow; that some processes will change, and some will be replaced with new processes. With this in mind, you will always need to be aware of the adjustments that will be required, and equally prepared to adapt them into your daily, weekly, and ongoing service performance routines.
  • Spend some time doing each of these self-assessment tasks. As a general rule of thumb, people won’t tell you that you are doing something wrong until you’ve done it wrong at least a couple of times or more. Sometimes they won’t tell you you’ve been doing something wrong until you’ve done it dozens of times! You cannot always rely on others to tell you when your performance is “off”. Therefore, by routinely giving yourself a self-assessment appraisal – nothing too formal; just something that can keep you in check over time – you will not need to depend on others to tell you when you are going wrong, because you will already know it. Just as it is advisable to conduct prescribed medical self-checks at home so you can diagnose diseases before they can do you great harm, it is just as important to do these customer service-focused self-checks at work before poor performance harms your reputation among your company’s customers.
  • Ease into a comfortable process that allows you to review, evaluate, re-evaluate, and adjust your customer service performance over time, as well as allow you to keep tabs on how well – or not well – you are performing at any given moment. The reason we emphasize the word “ease” is because if the steps you take to improve your customer service performance are not “easy”, then you are not likely to do them – or at least do them well. Find a process that allows you to monitor your own performance over time, change the way you are doing some things, and introduce new ways of doing other things better, thereby allowing you to “play” with the way you conduct your customer service activities until you can find a better way of doing so.
  • See how well the process works and adjust, re-engineer, or “tweak” it as often as necessary until it virtually runs all by itself. You will find yourself constantly changing things, adding things, or just doing things differently as you learn more and more about what your customers want and expect from you, and the two of you – your customers and yourself – will likely end up working together toward a common goal of improved customer service. From time to time, ask your customers how well you are doing, and where there may be areas that you could be doing better. Believe me, they will tell you! Also, from time to time, tell your customers what new things you have learned, what courses you have taken or certifications you have earned, or what other ways you have learned on how to improve the levels of service and support you are able to provide to them. They will want to know, and these joint interactions may ultimately make it easier for them to see – and acknowledge – how your performance has actually improved over time. The customer service process is an interactive one, and one where you may easily obtain input and feedback from a variety of sources; however, it will be up to you to find them – and use them.
  • Start the process all over again. And again. And again. In fact, whenever you think that the process is completed, that will probably be a good time to start it all over again. The self-assessment process, if done properly, will be a continuous one that keeps you current with your customers’ – and your employer’s – needs, and provides you with the underlying tools to ensure that you can continually strive to improve the way in which you are able to support your customers. The good news is that you will never have to do it all alone; your customers will always serve as a source of checks and balances to ensure that you are focusing in the right areas; and your employer will continually be able to provide you with opportunities for improving your customer service skills – and you should always take advantage of them. But most importantly, as either a technical and/or customer support specialist dealing with customers’ needs on a daily basis, you will never allow yourself to become “inadequate” – or even just “dusty” – in your ability to support customers, and that is why the process you develop for continuous self-assessment will work for you.

The Importance of Serving as an Ambassador to Your Customer Base

Your company may have thousands – or even tens of thousands – of employees working for it all over the world; however, as far as your customer accounts are concerned, you are the principal individual through whom they will have any contact once the initial sale has been completed. While they may speak with a sales associate of the company from time to time with regard to parts, consumables, upgrades or new equipment purchases, you are probably the only one they will actually see on a regular basis. As such, you are basically serving as an “ambassador” for both the equipment manufacturer and its services arm.

The role of the “ambassador”, while important, should not be a difficult one to play. Who more than you within the company could possibly do a better job? You are the one who makes regular service calls to the customer site; you have met and interacted with all of the principal equipment managers and operators at the customer site; you are familiar with the entire equipment service history; and you probably have all of the product literature and service documentation readily available at your fingertips. Plus, you are the one that also has had years of experience in supporting a wide variety of business systems and equipment, including new models, “end-of-life” equipment, and everything in-between in a variety of business applications.

So, you know the customer, you know the equipment, you know how the customer uses the equipment, and you know how the customer reacts when the equipment goes down. As a result, you already have everything you need on the “input” side; now all you need is some guidance with respect to using this information to your advantage on the “output” side, so you may truly serve as an ambassador to your customer base.

The first step in your role as an ambassador to the customer is to familiarize – or re-familiarize – yourself with all of the data and information you already have at hand. This will require reviewing the contents of your various customer service and support materials, such as product documentation, service guides, service-level agreements, internal and external documents and memoranda, company e-mails, recall notices, new product announcements, and any other items that you believe may ultimately have some impact with respect to customer needs and satisfaction. Every once in a while, it will also be to your advantage to visit your company’s web site to see if there have been any recent press releases, product announcements or the like that will help increase your overall understanding of what your company presently offers to its customers.

In today’s world, technology is constantly changing, and these changes often lead to the development of new products, new services, new software functionality and new business alliances between and among traditional companies. You should also spend the time to make yourself aware of any changes in these areas as you deal with your customers, since many of them will be reading the same websites, trade journals and business newspapers as you should be.

Given that your customers already look at you as their primary go-to person with respect to their business systems and equipment support, it is only natural that they will look to you for additional information and guidance as well. For example, your customers have probably asked you countless questions like “Who do I need to talk to in the company to see about adding components to our existing system configuration?”, “What do you think are the best types of consumables to use?”, “Our monthly throughput has really been increasing; do you think it’s time for us to consider upgrading to a bigger unit?”. None of these questions necessarily fall within your specific area of equipment service responsibility; but, you have probably answered them every time in the past – and, if not, you should get yourself to a position where you are able to in the future.

The best way to position yourself as a customer ambassador is to think – from the customer’s perspective – what other types of questions they would want answered if they had their company’s ambassador right there on-site, at their disposal, at any time. These questions would almost certainly involve information on new products, new services, new contracts, and almost too many other items to list.

Still, the more insight you have into your customers’ needs, usage and operation of their business systems and equipment, the better prepared you will be to pre-suppose what those questions might be. This can also provide you with some guidance as to what specific types of data and information you should be obtaining and reviewing on an ongoing basis in order to be able to respond to any and all of your customers’ questions “on the fly”.

Another thing to remember is that the more information the customer believes you have readily accessible, the more likely they will be to ask you more questions. Consequently, the more questions they ask you, and the more information you provide them, the more likely they will be to move forward on your suggestions. This, in turn, will probably lead them to buy more products and services from your company and, ultimately, become even more reliant on you for additional support. Very quickly, any existing relationship can become an even stronger “win-win” situation for both the customer and the service provider, as the customer now has a more direct source of data and information that it may use for future purchase decision-making. Effectively, from the customer’s perspective, the company has an added sales and promotional arm already out in the field – i.e., you.

There will always be multiple communications channels between your company and the customer – going both ways, from top to bottom and side-to-side, and throughout both organizations. However, by stepping in at the appropriate times, either when asked directly by the customer, or when a specific situation arises where you believe you can be of assistance, you will ultimately strengthen your role as the principal communications channel between the two parties. In fact, you probably already are serving in this capacity for most of your customers!

The way to determine if this is not the case, however, is to find out how many times, and how often, your customers go around you to obtain information on new products, new services, service level agreements, etc. If this happens quite frequently, the message that you should be getting is that you have not been making yourself as accessible to the customer as they would like, and that they would like to see more interaction and intervention on your part in order to make their job of managing their installed base of equipment a bit easier.

Again, nobody is asking you to do more than your designated responsibilities in terms of managing the service of your customers’ installed base of equipment and providing a full measure of support to your customers; however, if your primary job responsibility is to attend to your customers’ overall needs and requirements, and maximize the corresponding levels of customer satisfaction, then by serving as a principal channel between them and the company, you will only be making your own job that much easier.

The primary role of any ambassador, ultimately, is to serve as an intermediary who can make things easier for each of the parties it represents – in your case, bringing the customer and your company together in a true partner relationship. The beauty is that you probably already have most of the tools you will need to serve in the role of an ambassador, coupled with a fair measure of historical credibility among your customer base as well.

Now, all you have to do is be just a bit more proactive and interactive with your customers so they will know (if they didn’t already) that they have this additional resource in you. Thus, by simply doing what you do already – just in a bit more open and organized fashion – you can easily become a much more valuable resource to your customers – and your company.