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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

What is Your Best Advantage? CUSTOMER SERVICE:

Sellers rarely see their product or service in the same way that buyers do. In fact, that is often the heart of a failed advertising campaign. Or even a failed business.

Countless research studies confirm that consumers usually see little significant difference among most competing brands in many category. While shoppers may be brand loyal to Tide, many don't see it as appreciably different than All or Cheer. Of course, shoppers do see some differences. But seeing differences is not the same as a competitive advantage. If most buyers don't see the difference in your product, how can a seller create a competitive advantage?

Customer service may be the only real, long-lasting competitive advantage.


(1) Treat customers like friends. John, a truck driver, is from a small town in California. Here's what he said about what good customer service is. "Everything is so impersonal here. I could go into a lot of stores in my hometown and they'd smile at me and say, 'hello.' They didn't necessarily know my name, but they were neighborly. They treated me like a human being, not some number dressed up in pants.

I heard this same refrain over and over in my research. Customers see through the perfunctory apologies and fake smiles. And it can actually make the situation worse!

Here's an example. I recently waited several hours for a flight that was delayed on the ground. When we boarded, the captain offered a fast apology with all the sincerity of a telemarketer. No one expected free drinks, but people grumbled. One said, "Does he think he's doing us a favor? We're the ones paying his salary." A stewardess compounded the problem near the end of the flight by sharply telling people who only had their drinks for ten minutes, "I need to take everything now. So hurry up and finish." The final straw came at the end of a bumpy flight when the stewardess asked departing passengers to pull down the shade on their window so the plane wouldn't get so hot. Not a big deal, but after being treated like cattle, it was the wrong thing to ask passengers. One woman said, "Why should we do their jobs for them?" And at least one man actually pushed his closed shade back up. You can see how one or two employees can unthinkingly or accidentally damage a company's reputation with many customers by delivering only adequate customer service.

(2) Give customers something, and be sure they know it. People like a gift, or do something extra for them. It adds to the perceived value of the payment. A friend told me this story. She said, "I had some work done on my car at Whitey's. The mechanic noticed my blinker bulb wasn't working. He found a metal tab that wasn't making contact and straightened it. It probably took less than sixty seconds. But when he told me he'd fixed a nagging problem I'd had, the final bill seemed more than fair. They always do something like that, which is one of the reasons I keep going back."

Look for a little something you can give away to make your customers feel good about your company. Sees Candies give buyers a truffle at checkout. A free car wash at the dealership when getting your car repaired is a great idea. People like driving a shiny car, so it gives real value. Pick something that they will see as having value. A cheap plastic keychain gift won't make them happy. Then be sure to tell them (a) you did it, and (b) there’s no charge.

(3) Take care of customers. Many people come to a business because they have a problem. It might be something big like a will, or small like lunchtime hunger. Either way, they prefer to feel like the business they patronize cares about their problem.

Lorna is a nurse who just came back from South Carolina. "I was in a Chick Fil-A eating my sandwich when an employee came up and asked if everything was OK, and if I needed a drink refill or some desert," she said. "I'd never seen anything like that in a fast food restaurant. They made me feel really good about Chick Fil-A. I'd sure go back again." There's that word again -- FEEL. Creating an emotion is what counts.

It doesn't take much to create the feeling of good customer service, a few words, an offer to make the customer's experience there better, a big smile. Train your employees to deliver this or more and customers will notice.

(4) Know your merchandise. Most people have little time to waste. They want to go into a store, be treated like a human being, find what they want and leave. If clerks don't know the stock or make them wait for answers, customers think they're getting lousy customer service. While it helps if they're friendly, it is no substitute for knowledge.

Eric recently had a problem with the expensive computer hardware used to run his business. He called Customer Service. "The techie was nice and tried to be helpful, but he really only knew the basic things to do, which I'd already done. Every hour my computers were down, I was losing money, so I probably wasn't very nice. It took me about an hour to bully my way up the ladder to some experienced guy who immediately understood what the problem was. He talked me through it on the phone in fifteen minutes. It ticked me off that I had to wade through all those other people to get to the guy with the answers I needed."

Good customer service from the customer's viewpoint isn't hard. It just means following the Golden Rule -- treat people the way you want to be treated. It's also a Golden Rule in another way. Those with employees who follow the rule get the gold!

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