Many of us used to believe that simply following best practice and delivering great customer service was enough to gain a competitive advantage. Today these attributes are increasingly common and taken as read by our customers.
Expectations of quality service have been fuelled further by the increasing efficiency of the
24/7 internet age, generally overtaking any improvements in customer service itself. The result is that everyone now expects a defect-free product, delivered on time and with very good customer service.
So it's easy to see why the perceived gap between expectations and reality is getting much wider, leading many to think that customer service is much worse than it used to be. In reality, it's not, but we all have a duty at least to try to meet our customers' expectations.
The increased competition for customers' time and money across all leisure and service industries has, therefore, led to the development of customer management as a discipline in its own right, and everyone is now fighting much harder not only to get customers but, crucially, to retain them.
This increased focus on managing the customer experience also makes real economic sense since it costs at least five times as much to win a new customer as it does to retain an existing one. A customer-focused philosophy is also very difficult to copy or beat without a genuine willingness to put your customer at the heart of your decision-making process.
In reorientating your business around your customers' needs and expectations, it's worth recognising that your most important asset is the quality of the relationship that you have with them.
But in order to get the best return from your customers you first have to deliver real value to them. In striving to be the very best, you have to define exactly what kind of customer experience you're trying to deliver in the first place -because if you don't take the time out to plan, articulate and communicate this to your staff, then how on earth can you expect them to deliver it to your customers? Too often this definition is restricted to the physical background against which the customer experience is expected to be delivered, since graphic images and story/mood boards are much easier to understand than "woolly ideas" such as customer care, service and management.
As you look for ways to improve your customers' experience, be aware that something like 50% of their experience is emotional - and that's why they might get disproportionately upset over things that are easily fixed. This gives you the opportunity to seek out easy wins that cost relatively little but which have high emotional value to the recipient. It also demonstrates why you should avoid rubbing up your most important customers the wrong way over issues which are of lesser importance in your anticipated long-term relationship with them.
In very simple terms, everything that your business does front of house should be aligned to the customer. This encourages staff to fix problems at the first point of contact, whereas in the past many organisations were determined to make customers comply with their rules and procedures, regardless of how customer unfriendly they were. The customer, in return, was expected to be loyal in spite of the quality of the service experienced. Rather than making procedures more complicated to suit head office's internally focused systems, it's the process of simplifying and refining your customer experience that will drive success.
One of the easiest ways to give your business a service health check is to imagine that you're in a helicopter hovering above your premises. As you then look down into your business you must make a very honest appraisal of what you can see from your customer's perspective.
Little can change until you can actually see what you had previously overlooked. The old adage of actions speaking louder than words is certainly true, and you have to make these customer improvements as quickly as possible. Otherwise a culture of "it doesn't really matter here" will spread like mould throughout your company. If this happens, it can lead to a dangerous downward spiral that's difficult to correct.
The starting point in delivering an outstanding customer experience generally comes by recruiting staff with the right attitude and simply having them display conscious competence at every point of contact that customers have with your business. Most people will gain a very positive impression of your business just by your staff being - and knowing that they are - competent at whatever they're meant to be doing for your customers. Thereafter it's reasonably easy to exceed customer expectations. To do this most successfully you also have to do more for your customers than your competitors, and over time this will enable you to charge what is, in fact, a value-added premium.
That, of course, requires you to be equally good at communicating these unique selling points, since there's little point in having them if you don't tell your customers.
Your front-of-house staff are obviously a very good source of suggestions on how to improve the quality of your service since they have the most immediate contact with the customers. However, the customers themselves are the most valuable source of suggestions and you should ask them three simple questions: Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend us to someone else? And is there anything else we could have done to make it better for you?
Even your most loyal and supportive customers will give you very valuable suggestions on how you could improve the way in which you do business with them, but the most important thing is that you take their advice on board.
Delivering five-star customer management
Have a genuine customer-focused philosophy
Define and communicate to your staff exactly what they're expected to deliver
Simplify processes and procedures around the customer's needs
Have a conscious competence at every point to contact with your customers
Deliver real value and emotional satisfaction to your customers.
Seek, value and implement customer feedback
Five-Star Customer Management Conference, EICC, Edinburgh, 3 November
With more choice and less timem customer expectations have never been greater and excellent service is now a most basic requirement.
The key to effective competitive advantage is putting the customer at the heart of your decision-making process and redesigning your business around their needs.
The conference, chaired by Bob Downie, is designed to inform delegates how to achieve five-star customer management. Speakers include:
Derek Williams, managing director of the Wow! Awards: Building a Customer-Focused Business.
Piero Ferrari, former operations manager, Tower 42: The Tower 42 Success Story.
Pete Sowden, Yorkshire Buikding Society: The Loyalty Effect of Treating Customers Fairly.
James Timpson, Timpson Ltd: Upside Down Management: Trusting Your Staff to Deliver Great Service.
For further information or to secure a booking, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0131-555 8800
Bob Downie is chief executive of the Royal Yacht Britannia and winner of the Catey Tourism Award 2005.