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Forward-Facing Customer Service

Admit that you’re in the service business. Understand service is not the transactional side of your business, but the manner in which you conduct those transactions.

Last week I brought my car in for a routine service. I can choose from two BMW dealerships. One is 15 minutes from my office and another 30 minutes away. Does the more distant dealership use better oil? Are they faster? Probably not. The loaner cars are equivalent. The in-out process is equivalent. Yet, I believe I get better “service” at the less convenient location.

Compare a phone call with an American Express rep and their corollary at Visa. The difference is night and day because the AMEX employee has more training, is empowered to make decisions, and is better paid. AMEX knows this; it’s part of their strategic plan. AMEX puts good people in forward-facing positions because, well, how else would you distinguish one charge card service from another?

Service businesses are defined by their service (duh). But what is service, actually? Service, to be sure, refers to a transaction. I use an AMEX card, and the company provides a “service.” You sell a home theater. The design, engineering, installation, and training for that theater also is a “service.” I rate AMEX’s ability to do the functional stuff, like approving my transactions, sending me an invoice, and calling me when it perceives possible fraud. But I’d be hard pressed to point out how much better AMEX handles the functional issues compared with Visa.

What do I notice about good “service” at the car dealership? It’s how friendly the advisor is to me. At the closer dealership, I feel the advisors are rushed, indifferent to me, and primed to sell me tires every time I show up. The dealership I choose also moves me along, but a little more gently. The advisor also tries to sell me tires, but less forcefully. And most importantly, the advisor says, “Hi, Ira” when I show up.

Is that service? When it’s all stripped away, just having a customer service representative acknowledge your humanity? The answer, is unequivocally yes.

Study after study in medicine shows how a doctor’s malpractice claims tie directly to his or her bedside manner. The more communication (and listening) a doctor has with a patient, the less likely the patient sues if something goes wrong. Claims drop by 50 percent in studies where doctors are encouraged to spend time with their patients describing procedures, talking through options, and explaining risks. The level of care doesn’t change, but “customer service” improves.

Understand service is not the transactional side of your business, but the manner in which you conduct those transactions.

Who is Your Customer Service Team?

In your CI business, every individual in your company that has contact with the client shares customer service responsibilities. On a day-to-day basis, your techs spend the most amount of time with your clients. Your techs are your forward-facing customer service team, and like AMEX, your techs establish the service level of your company. Ideally, your techs would be well trained and well compensated for you to have a strategic advantage. Not convinced? Think about the feedback you’ve gotten from clients. Clients will share how much they “love” one of your lead techs. Or, conversely, how much they’re “disappointed” by another. Clients rarely give you feedback on the ingenuity of your programmer, or the efficiency of your billing department. Clients respond to your company by assessing the service level of the employees they interact with most often.

Misunderstanding the Importance of Customer Service

I often hear managers rationalize a tech with poor interpersonal skills by saying, “He’s not great with clients, but he can pull wire faster than anyone I know.” This is the equivalent of a BMW service manager saying, “He’s not good with clients, but he can process more transactions per hour than any other advisor.” An employee who shouldn’t be talking to clients shouldn’t be in a service company.

Can you train good customer service?

It’s not easy to train employees to be good at customer service. You can, however, train wire pulling to a friendly, smart, go-getter. So it makes sense to hire customer-service savvy employees and then train them on the technical side of the business. I can tell you with authority that the BMW service manager I had last week was not a car geek. She was a great customer service person who was taught how to handle a service transaction. She would be just as successful at any customer service job, regardless of industry.

Admit that you’re in the service business. Understand service is not the transactional side of your business, but the manner in which you conduct those transactions. Now think long and hard about the customer service qualities of your forward-facing employees. Are these the same people with whom you would want to conduct business?