Are You Successfully Managing Your Customer Relationships?

Most service technicians have at least a fair understanding of who their customers are, and what kinds of relationships the business has with them. However, even the “good” technicians are often deficient in their full understanding of exactly how to manage those relationships. (Remember – these are the three key elements of CRM: customers, relationships, and management.)

In some cases, it may be that the technician has the basic understanding – but not the tools – to fully manage his or her customer relationships. In other cases, the technician may have neither the tools, nor the understanding, to make it work. Of course, the latter is the worse of the two scenarios, although in either case, it is abundantly clear that without proper management (i.e., M), there can be no “real” relationships (i.e., R) and, ultimately, there will be no customers (i.e., and C)! There is no question about it -–  services organizations cannot afford to let management be the weak link in their customer relationships – and neither can you.

Managing your customer relationships is comparable to managing any other aspect of your business – with the one main difference being that successful execution will be a critical component of your overall performance evaluation. If you do not manage your customer relationships effectively, you will still have your customers to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and you will definitely have relationships with them – although they may be bad ones, or ones that will ultimately make your own day-to-day job that much more difficult to handle. This is why every service technician out in the field needs to pay a considerable amount of attention to the management of their customers – to foster the most optimum relationships possible with them, thereby making everybody’s job that much easier.

We have seen many organizations implement a CRM software package from a major CRM vendor and think that they now have everything in place to effectively manage their customers. However, many of them have yet to see the desired return on their investment because the CRM solution will only work if it is integrated into all aspects of the business – particularly those areas that directly “touch” the customers, such as field service and technical support.

To improve your own chances for success, and to be able to manage your own customers better, you will first need to:

  • Start with a solid customer-focused CRM philosophy;
  • Translate this philosophy into reasonable and achievable goals and objectives for success;
  • Understand the processes and tools that you have available;
  • Become aware of the data and information resources available to you; and
  • Prepare yourself to utilize all of the resources that your company’s organization and infrastructure provides.

You will also need to be able to measure and monitor your performance over time to ensure that you are continually meeting your goals.

Let me explain further.

CRM Philosophy

The impact of technology, the “real-time” accessibility of data and information directly off of the Internet; and instant access to e-mails, texts, tweets and cell phone calls; has given all of us the tools we need to manage our customer relationships much more quickly and efficiently than ever before. But these tools will only work for us if we use them to a dedicated purpose – and use them effectively.

Ultimately, everything we do, we do for our customers. Given that we already have a good understanding of their specific services and needs requirements, we should just naturally attune ourselves to provide them with any of the information they need as quickly as we receive it ourselves. We already know what they want; now it is time to deliver it as quickly and completely as possible. They expect it from us, and they will settle for nothing less. We have the tools and empowerment to support them completely, and the philosophy of CRM demands that we do so.

Goals and Objectives

The next step is to translate your personal understanding of the CRM philosophy into specific goals and objectives for the way in which you would like to manage your customer relationships. At the individual level, you may wish to set your own CRM goals and objectives for key things such as:

  • Communicating with your customers better – and more frequently (i.e., utilizing the LOTS approach as much as possible);
  • Providing those customers who require more detailed information with the level of detail they require;
  • Following-up quicker, particularly for specific customers and/or problems that require immediate attention or quick resolution;
  • Taking better notes to ensure that you never walk into a customer site either unprepared, or uninformed;
  • Taking advantage of all of the internal company tools and resources available (i.e., company memoranda, e-mails, newsletters, customer/equipment databases, documentation, etc.);
  • Taking additional technical and/or customer service training courses to improve your existing skill sets; and
  • Taking whatever steps are necessary to improve your ability to get your job done, and manage your customer relationships better.

Processes and Tools

In most situations, your company will already have a defined set of business processes and tools readily available for your use. These may include anything from the more traditional resources (e.g., product documentation, hardware specs, repair guidelines, on-site policies and procedures, etc.), to the availability of more sophisticated real-time customer and installed equipment databases, Web-based technical support, and the like. Use these resources as a matter of course; they have been designed to help you, and they will – if you use them.

Data and Information

Information is the key to successful CRM, and is also crucial for the ultimate success of your own customer service performance. Just remember, the majority of the data and information your company makes available to you will essentially be “global” in nature, and may not be as customer-specific as you would probably like. This is why it is so important to collect your own customer data and information on a regular basis, to augment what you already receive from the company. Again, this does not have to be a formal database – just an aggregation of important notes, comments, and observations that will ultimately help you to understand your customers better, and improve your ability to provide them with the best technical support and customer service possible.

Organization and Infrastructure

Whether the company you work for is large or small, it is probably fairly well organized and comprised of a formal infrastructure designed to support you and your peers out in the field. Take advantage of this infrastructure by getting to know all of the resources that are available, how you may gain easy access to them, and how you may use them to support your customers. This may require attending internal company seminars or workshops, or simply asking questions of your supervisors or managers with respect to what resources they feel would be of value to you.

Also, make sure you’ve read all of the internal memoranda and e-mails you receive so you can be continually updated on any internal changes that may ultimately impact you and your customers. The more lead time you have with respect to any impending changes, the easier it will be to deal with them at the customer level.

Monitoring and Tracking

Last, but not least, the key to your own success in implementing your CRM philosophy will be your ability to monitor and track your own performance over time – you cannot manage it, if you don’t measure it! This is why it is so important to set specific goals and objectives in advance. For example, one goal might be to reduce the number of complaints your manager receives each month from customers regarding your on-site performance; or increase the number of monthly commendations you receive. Another goal might be to work toward responding to all customer inquiries within 24 hours rather than in two days or more. There are many other goals that you can set as well, based on your own personal experience in the field; but, whatever the goals, make sure that you can measure, monitor, and track them over time to see whether you are truly making any improvements.

All of the efforts you put into managing your customer relationships better will ultimately bear fruit if you are sincere – and serious – about succeeding. You will be amazed at how much valuable information you can obtain directly from the input and feedback you receive from your customers if you build the proper two-way communications channels between you and them.

CRM does not need to be a complex exercise. It is not “rocket science” – it is just managing the relationships you already have with your customers better. Sometimes you will need to go “outside the box” to find all of the tools and resources that will make it work, and you will almost always need some outside help to get started, or to take your understanding of CRM to the next level.

CRM is not just for the mild-mannered, nor is it strictly for the progressive over-achievers. It is for every employee that deals with customers – and within your own organization, this will probably apply to you most of all.

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.

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.

Communications Before, During, and After the Customer Site Visit

Communications before, during, and after the customer site visit are all important – and all essentially the same, just with some variations upon a theme. However, you will find that the common threads that go through all of the communications between you and your customers are typically based on the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak”, or LOTS, approach (that we previously outlined in one of our earlier blogs). It really does not matter when you are having communications with your customers – what matters is that when you do, you are consistent and responsive. This is where the LOTS approach can truly help.

Communications Before the Customer Site Visit

Of course, the types of communications you have with your customers before, during, and after the on-site visit are likely to differ significantly by content. By content, we mean what you will be speaking to them about, rather than how you will be speaking to them.

For example, prior to an on-site call, there will probably only be a few different types of conversations or exchanges that you will be likely to have with your customers. These may include areas such as scheduling or confirming an appointment, alerting them in advance that you may be late for an appointment, asking them to describe the symptoms of an equipment failure so you will know what you will be dealing with once you arrive, or any other number of informational courtesy-type exchanges.

For most pre-visit conversations that are essentially courtesy-based, much of the “pressure” will be reduced, and it will simply boil down to a matter of confirming dates, times, places, and other pieces of information that will allow you to quickly get to work as soon as you arrive at the customer’s premises. However, as easy as these types of conversations could be, if you do not pay attention to what the customer is saying, or if you let something “slip through the cracks”, you may end up paying dearly for it before too long.

You have probably heard of some cases where a field technician has called the customer from the road to let them know they are on the way to the site; but once he or she arrives, there is nobody there to let them in. After waiting five or 10 minutes, the field technician leaves. However, if they had truly “listened” to the customer during that initial telephone conversation, they would have noted that the customer had asked to call them on their cell phone upon arrival, since they would not be at their own desk at the anticipated time of arrival. The end result of not listening carefully in this case is (1) an incomplete service call that now needs to be rescheduled, (2) a piece of installed equipment that remains unusable, and (3) a customer account that started off frustrated, but now has become angry because the field technician didn’t listen to them.

It is generally understandable – and mostly forgivable – to miss something when the communications are difficult, rushed, complicated, or otherwise out of the ordinary; but, when you let something “slip through the cracks” on an otherwise simple, yet important, item of communication, you have only yourself to blame – and your customer will let you know it! That is why communications prior to the on-site visit are so important, even though they may be so simple. Nonetheless, they set the stage for the entire customer relationship throughout the duration of the service call – and well beyond.

Communications During the On-Site Visit

Different customers are just like different service technicians – some like to talk a lot, and some don’t like to talk much at all. In most cases, you will have to be the judge. However, there are still some guidelines for communications during the on-site visit that may be helpful, as follows.

You must remember that when you are making an on-site visit, it is typically because of a specific reason – and one which is most likely negative, such as an equipment failure, software problem, or another circumstance that is making the equipment unusable. Even a scheduled PM will make the equipment unusable for a brief period of time. While you and your customer may be genuinely happy to see one another and share your thoughts on anything from the weather, to the local sports team results, to the latest stock market report, the primary order of business – and remember, you are both managing portions of your respective company’s businesses – is to get the equipment up and running as soon as possible.

The best types of on-site communications are, again, those based on the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak”, or LOTS, approach. Keep in mind that as soon as you arrive on-site, this will be the customer’s first opportunity to tell you – sometimes at great length – exactly what they think went wrong, when it happened, what they were doing when it happened, and why it is important that you get it fixed as soon as possible. In many cases, this is nothing more than the customer’s best opportunity to vent to you once you arrive.

Just as a courtesy, you will probably have to listen to most, if not all, of what your customer has to say at this time; however, these introductory communications will also serve to set the stage for where you will need to look, and what you will need to do, in order to perform the fix. If the customer hangs around while you are performing the work (although this is generally not advised), there will be additional time for the two of you to engage in “small talk”.

However, regardless of where the customer “hangs” while you are performing the work, you can count on only one thing – they cannot wait until you have finished the work, and are able to tell them the magic words, “Everything is fixed. The unit works perfectly. You can begin using it immediately.” This will always be your first priority while you are still on-site. But they will also expect you to tell them why the failure occurred, what they may have done differently to have avoided it, and what they can reasonably expect to experience in the future (i.e., in terms of related or anticipated equipment failure, etc.). Accordingly, this may also be a good time to talk to them about possible equipment replacements or upgrades, extended warranty agreements, or the like. These will generally be considered as appropriate types of communications to engage in at this time – even from the customer’s perspective.

Communications After the On-Site Visit

Communications after the on-site visit can oftentimes be categorized into communications following a “good” call, a “bad” call, or an “incomplete” call – but, however you classify them, they are all really the same in terms of what you will ultimately be required to do. Regardless of whether it was a “good” (i.e., the repair went well, and the machine is working again) or “bad” (i.e., the repair did not go well because you did not have the right spare part with you, or you arrived late, etc.) call, the customer will always want to know “what happens next?”

Following a “good” call, the customer will probably expect to hear from you in the next day or so regarding whether the machine is still running as expected, and whether there have been any other problems that they may have encountered since you completed the call. For a repeat service call, the customer may be waiting to hear from you with respect to whether or not a replacement unit or an equipment upgrade would either be required or recommended. As such, this may also represent an excellent opportunity for you to cross-sell or upsell this particular customer.

However, for a “bad” call, all the customer will really want to hear from you – and, as soon as possible – is what are you going to do to resolve the problem. In cases like this, it will be to your advantage to be as proactive as possible, calling your customer with the proposed solution before they feel they have to call you to ask about it.

It always pays to remember that the communications that occur after the most recent on-site visit will pretty much set the stage for the communications that transpire before and during your next on-site visit with that customer. In a classic television commercial for an automotive oil filter, the tagline was something like, “You can either pay me now, or you can pay me later.” When you’re dealing with your customers, believe me, it is always better to pay attention to what you need to do upfront so you do not get caught having to pay for it later – because you will!

Until next time – keep your customers satisfied!

Knowing When It’s Time to Fix – and When It’s Time to Replace

You can probably almost hear Kenny Rogers singing, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” with respect to the game of poker; well, virtually the same rules apply to the equipment repair “game” as well. Sometimes it will be best for the customer to have the equipment fixed, and sometimes they will be better advised to replace either the entire unit, or just certain components of it. In most cases, however, it will be up to you to provide them with the proper “argument” for doing “the right thing” – and this will not always be easy to do.

We have all likely experienced what is commonly known as “the first car syndrome”. That is, after we have scrimped and saved for years to buy our very first car, we soon learn that every once in a while, we will still need to replace one part or another. First, it may be nothing more than replacing one or more worn-out parts, such as brakes or tires; but then, before we know it, we are spending more money than we could have imagined to replace a thermostat, carburetor, various hoses and, ultimately, even having to pay for a rebuilt transmission.

At some point, undoubtedly, we arrive at the conclusion that had we known we were going to need to replace all of these major components over time, we probably would have traded the car in for a new one – or at least a “new-used” one – months, if not years, earlier.

An ancient Greek riddle goes something like this: “If a ship is built of 10,000 planks, and 1,000 different planks need to be replaced every year for 10 years; after the 10 years, is it still the same ship?” However, a better question to ask would be, “If the ship requires so much maintenance, shouldn’t you really have traded it in for another ship already?”

The same logic also applies to business systems and equipment; however, in today’s highly technical and economically downturned business environment, it may be even more difficult for customers to consider trading in their existing equipment than it would be to consider trading in their aging car – or wooden ship!

Your company’s Sales and Services support teams will usually be in a better position than the customer to determine whether a specific piece of equipment merits repairing, or whether it is truly time to consider replacing it. This is particularly true for your field technicians because they are the primary ones who physically work on the equipment, monitor its performance, evaluate its service history, and (hopefully) understand how the customer uses it on an ongoing basis.

However, while this “experiential learning” may make them more knowledgeable in most cases than the customer, it does not necessarily make it easier for them to convince the customer that now may be the “right” time to consider upgrading or replacement – even armed with increasingly detailed call activity and remote diagnostics reports, etc.

What will make it easier to convince the customer that now is the time to “take the leap” is their ability to match the specific unit’s service history against both the customer’s anticipated usage, and your company’s product and support specs for newer lines of equipment. Perhaps your company has a formal “Return-on-Investment”, or ROI, model for determining the financial and/or economic benefits for either keeping or trading in existing equipment for newer models.

However, even if it does not, the field technician probably already has all of the information he or she needs to make an educated determination as to whether or not it makes sense for the customer to keep the equipment, or upgrade to something else that will ultimately save them money, handle greater capacity or throughput, and reduce equipment downtime in the long run.

Then, of course, there is always the matter of knowing when to cross-sell, and what to upsell. We’ll be talking about that in some of our later blogs.

Until next time – keep your customers satisfied!

How Can You Make Happy Customers Even Happier?

The main difference between being able to make unhappy customers happy, and happy customers even happier, is the point of initiation. At least with unhappy customers, even if you do not know why they were unhappy before contacting them (or having them contact you), you can rest assured that you will get the chance to learn very quickly.

Ironically, however, it may actually be more difficult to make a happy customer even happier than it is to make an unhappy customer happy in the first place – and you certainly would not want to accidentally do something wrong that might make them unhappy instead.

What we have seen from our research is that the best approach for making happy customers even happier is to focus on the following guidelines:

  • Make sure that you and your team understand how the customer uses its systems and equipment as part of their ongoing business operations – make suggestions occasionally on how they can improve efficiency, save some money, go green or reduce waste, etc.
  • Take steps to better understand the difference between the customer’s wants and needs – provide them with targeted information and advice they can use to concentrate more on what they “need”, rather than on what they think they “want”.
  • Understand the customer’s plans for future expansion, downsizing or consolidation – make the appropriate recommendations for updating or modifying their existing service level agreements, or upgrading to newer or different models and technology.
  • Keep track of the things you have done in the past to make them happy – do more of the same, and learn what other things or actions would also make them happy.
  • Customers love to feel they are getting something for nothing – any documentation or materials that you believe may help your customers to utilize their systems and equipment more efficiently, or provide them with additional product or service information, will generally be gladly accepted.
  • Customers also love to hear what other users like themselves are doing with their equipment – so, without divulging any customer-proprietary information, occasionally provide your customers with examples of what some other companies are doing, again, to improve efficiency, save some money, or reduce waste, etc.
  • Provide your customers with new product or service information before it is otherwise widely distributed or disseminated – customers always enjoy receiving information before it is distributed to the general public.
  • Provide a more “personal” side of your communications with your customers in order to establish a closer, and less formal relationship – but, be careful not to get too “personal”; just close enough so they feel they can depend on you to act as their surrogate within the company whenever a problem becomes larger than what both you and they can handle by yourselves.
  • Strive toward making your relationship with your customers a true “partnership”, rather than just merely a “vendor-customer” relationship – this is the true essence of Customer Relationship Management, or CRM.

Of course, all of these guidelines are merely just words written in a blog posting; the true test can only be exercised by you and your customer and technical support teams on behalf of the customer. In any case, you should always feel comfortable in relying on your own instincts in order to initially assess the situation, determine the appropriate course of action, and override any of these (or any other) guidelines on the basis of your own expertise and experience.

If you are truly going to succeed in establishing a relationship with your customers, then you must first have both the capability and the confidence to use your own judgment in making your happy customers even happier.

Making Unhappy Customers Happy

Dealing with unhappy customers, making unhappy customers happy, and making happy customers even happier are all variations on the same theme – they typically differ only by degree. In fact, it may actually be easier to make unhappy customers happy, than to make happy customers even happier.

Unhappy customers will probably want to tell you why they are unhappy – whether you already know it or not. They will typically want to get their “two cents” in, even before they allow you to speak. This is fine; this is part of their venting, and they will expect you to stop and listen as they do so. As such, this will be the proper time for you to listen and observe.

In most cases, customers have already become unhappy even before their call is taken or the service technician arrives at the site. This may be because they waited too long for the call to be answered, the tech is running late, it is a repeat call for a recent or similar occurrence, or they have just come off of a “bad” service call with the company the time before. In any case, for the first few moments, you will probably be on the receiving end of a combination of both fair and unfair accusations, finger-pointing, and the like. As always, this will be the proper time to listen and observe – before you speak.

The best way to ultimately make unhappy customers happy is to convince them that you will be working together to resolve any problems, and that you are not really working in adversarial positions. The services world is too often segregated into an “us vs. them” scenario; but, the quicker you show your customers that you are on their side, the quicker you can make them happy.

Some guidelines for accomplishing this are:

  • Listen to what they have to say, and listen attentively – if they do not believe that you are paying full attention to their “story”, they will probably become even less happy.
  • Accept full responsibility for resolving any open issues, and be gracious in accepting blame wherever it is justified – customers will not tolerate any finger-pointing; especially at themselves.
  • Explain, to the best of your knowledge, what happened, why it happened, what you plan to do about it, when it will be resolved, and how you will ensure that it never happens again (i.e., if it is something that you can help to prevent) – provide them with the guidance and assistance to prevent such occurrences from happening again (i.e., if it appears to have been something under their control).
  • Just as machines sometimes require TLC (i.e., tender loving care), so do humans – treat your customers with the levels of TLC and “hand holding” they require in order to “soothe” their apparent frustrations.
  • As soon as you make contact, let them know that you will be focused on resolving any open issues as quickly as possible, and to their satisfaction – let them know that you are working on their behalf, and that you will not be happy until they are completely satisfied.
  • If there are any open issues remaining as you are closing out the call, assure them that you will be following-up and getting back to them with a complete solution as soon as possible – and then, follow-up as you promised.

Customers only have reason to remain unhappy for as long as the problem remains in play. However, the greater the problem, the longer it will remain “top of mind”, and the longer it will serve to plague your overall relationship with the customer.

The worst time to have your next “bad” service call with the customer is immediately following your last “bad” service call with the customer. After one “bad” experience, your performance is likely to be more closely watched and scrutinized every successive time you are called back. However, by following these guidelines, the prospects for your delivering “bad” service stand to be significantly lessened and, therefore, you will find that it is much easier both to keep your customers happy, as well as convert any unhappy customers into happy ones.

Listen, Observe, Think, Speak – Field Technicians Can Benefit LOTS By Using this Approach to Building Customer Relationships

Experience has shown that the best way to get to know your customers is to utilize the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak” – or LOTS – approach. In any customer interface situation, simply think LOTS and you will be surprised as to how easy it really is to get to know them. The guidelines for using the LOTS approach are quite simple:

Listen

The key thing to remember is that when a customer experiences an equipment failure, they typically will want to tell you about it – how it happened, when it happened, how it is impacting their workflow, and what will happen if you can’t get it back up and running quickly enough. In fact, they generally won’t even want to hear what you have to say until after they have already told you what they think their problem is – in their own words. And the only way to do this is to LISTEN to what they have to say.

By the time you arrive at the customer site, the machine has probably already been down for a couple of hours or more, and some customers may feel “compelled” to tell you everything they know about the “history” of the failure. Some of this “history” will be important for you to know, although most of it will undoubtedly be either incidental or unimportant with respect to helping you make the repair. However, from the customer’s perspective, virtually everything they have to tell you will be important to them at the time.

The good news is, that after just a little direct experience with each individual customer, you will find that you are more quickly able to get the important information out of them – first, by listening, and then by following-up with a few questions of your own to hone in on the most relevant pieces of information that you will need to help you make the repair. All it takes is a little experience in general – supplemented by a little “history” with a specific customer – to be able to shrink the process down to just a few questions, and just a little time to listen.

However, you should remember that it will be just as important to listen to what the customer has to say about what may have led up to the failure as it is to gauge how anxious or upset the customer is when they are telling you their story. In fact, the way in which they tell you their story (e.g., calm and collected, anxious or apprehensive, angry or “out for bear”, etc.) will generally dictate the degree to which you will need to listen to what they have to say. It is not just a matter of getting all of the information you need from the customer – you will probably get everything you need directly from the machine; it is more a matter of showing the customer that you do listen, and that what they have to tell you is important.

By doing so, you can help to “pull” the customer over to your side, convincing them that you are working together to understand not only what needs to be fixed, but within what overall business context the entire event will be taking place (e.g., meeting a production deadline, requiring an overtime shift, etc.).

Listening is always the right place to start; but listening is only the point of entry to the customer situation, and there are other important things that must also follow.

Observe

Observing always begins at the same time as listening. Words are just words; but the way in which they are spoken often help to tell a more complete story. Therefore, the next most important thing you will need to do once you arrive at the customer site is to OBSERVE how the customer acts while you are listening to what they have to say – as well as observing the situation around the machine itself.

By observing the customer, you can determine his or her exact state-of-mind with respect to what – or more appropriately, whom – you will be dealing. Fortunately, most of your customers will be reasonable when you deal with them; however, depending on their specific history with the machine, your company’s service plan – or you yourself – their responsiveness to you once you arrive on-site can be all over the place.

It is always beneficial to be aware of exactly where you stand when you enter the customer site; for example, will you be welcomed with “open arms”, or will you be more likely to get “shot off at the knees”? Knowing which scenario you are walking into will provide you with enough guidance to handle the customer appropriately while you are technically on their “turf”.

It will also be necessary to observe the machine – as well as the area in which it is located. Sometimes, simple things like a machine located too close to an eating or drinking area, or evidence of a stockpile of poor-quality, generic parts or consumables may provide you with a “clue” as to what may have caused the current – or, possibly, a future – equipment failure. But, the only way you will be able to find these “clues”, is to observe them.

However, listening and observing are still only half the battle! These two actions simply provide you with the preliminary information and the ability to assimilate and interpret it once you arrive on-site – but, now, you will need to act. However, before you act, you will next need to think!

Think

Ever since grade school, we have all been told to THINK before we speak. Well, this is never as important as it is when you are dealing with customers – especially with customers who are dealing with an expensive and important piece of equipment that, for reasons they may or may not understand, just simply stopped working.

Since the first words out of your mouth once you arrive at the customer site are likely to be the ones that set the tone for the entire service call, it is absolutely critical that you choose them carefully. By way of review, we suggest that this can only be accomplished effectively if you have, in fact, first listened to and observed the specific environment into which you have entered. But even so – and in every case – before you speak, you must first think!

Some examples of things you may want to think about before you speak include:

  • How to defend the fact that you have arrived late on-site, without coming across as being either uncaring, arrogant, or unapologetic.
  • How to assure the customer that you will have their equipment up and running quickly enough for them to still make their deadlines – or why you cannot, and what other types of contingency plans may help them out in the interim (i.e., use of a loaner unit, etc.).
  • How to explain that you may not be particularly knowledgeable about the specific piece of equipment that has failed, and how you will shortly be obtaining the repair information you require.
  • How to tell them that the warranty on this specific piece of equipment has expired; that that they may have to pay for this specific service call; and/or what options they may actually have to make the existing situation (i.e., non-covered equipment) any better.

These are only a few representative examples of some of the potentially awkward – or even confrontational – situations that you may face when making a particular customer call. All of them – and countless others – require careful thought before a single word leaves your mouth.

Sometimes the most innocuous situation can be turned into a problem if the wrong words are spoken. It almost doesn’t matter whether the problem is a result of the use of incorrect information, inappropriate language, finger-pointing at the customer (or anyone else), political incorrectness, tone of voice, or just the customer’s perception (or misperception) that any of these cases has occurred. Whether it is your fault or not is irrelevant – the first words out of your mouth will generally set the stage for the remainder of the service call, so they better be right on – and they will require some thought.

Speak

If the previous three areas have already been handled adequately, this next part should be the easiest one for you to accomplish. After you have sufficiently listened, observed, and thought, you should be in an excellent position to – finally – SPEAK!

Remember, when you are at the customer site, you are the expert. You are the one – and the only one – that the customer is depending on to assess the situation, repair the equipment, and get them back to some semblance of normalcy. This is an enormous burden if you are not adequately prepared. However, if you are, once again, this should be your easiest task.

But what you ultimately speak must be concise, focused, and informative. You should focus primarily on items such as asking about the specific problem at-hand, collecting information, gaining an idea of the “lay of the land” with respect to the customer site and related activity and; after assessing the situation, telling the customer what you are going to be doing, about how long it should take, and what you expect the ultimate result to be – to the best of your ability, and with the information you have available.

This does not mean to say that you cannot talk briefly about such things as the local sports team, traffic, or even the weather. However, it does makes common sense to avoid saying anything politically incorrect, confrontational, or “catty”, such as attempting to blame someone else about your late arrival, pointing the finger with respect to an equipment failure (especially at the customer), or talking about personal matters, like politics or religion.

Still, it will be the spoken word that the customer will remember long after you have left the site. That is why it is so important to do the thinking, after you have done the listening and observing. Consider everything you say to have “legs”. Once you say it, it will be frozen in time as far as the customer is concerned.

If you make a promise, you will be expected to keep it – or explain why you can’t; if you point a finger at someone else, you can expect to have a finger pointed back at you; if you blame the customer for something (whether they were responsible or not), they will find something to blame you about later.

However, if you are upfront with the customer, and you provide them with an ongoing stream of information, kept promises, and guidance for managing their equipment better, they will work along with you – as opposed to against you – for the duration of your customer relationship.