When we think of who’s responsible for developing and retaining the customer relationship, business owners and CEOs too often feel this is solely the role and responsibility of the Business Development or Sales Team. I’m here to tell you that mindset is narrow-minded and can lead to a parade of lost business, sometimes in a very short time. Everyone in the company plays a role in customer retention!
When we think of why a customer buys from us and how to retain them, we need to look at every aspect of our business – who adds value and who are the Contact Points or CPs. We also need to adopt a simple company operating philosophy I call SLURPY – not the drink at 7-11, but a set of 6 basic principles that are critical to both customer and inter-departmental relationships.
S Smile into the phone or in a meeting – it’s hard to communicate negatively when you smile.
L Leave your personal issues at home – distractions at work or in a meeting can derail your ability to concentrate and perform in a professional manner towards customers.
U Understand that customer purchases are funding your compensation and benefits – no customer purchases, no job, no money.
R Respect your customer – business is people working with people. That means all types of people!
P Problem solving can be some of the most important customer and inter-departmental building and retention experiences – if handled improperly they can derail the relationship. Remember, in every problem lies the solution.
Y You treat customers and your colleagues as you would want to be treated – think about the times you’ve had poor service. Is that what you want for your customer or colleague?
Now that we understand SLURPY, let’s see how your company’s many CPs are an extension of SLURPY and how they can make or break customer retention.
CP1 – Receptionist or Automated Attendant
This is usually the most common touch point in an ongoing relationship, but it can be the first contact point ever for a prospect. This is where I see successful companies shine while others fail miserably. If this is the first CP at the company, this position needs to be taken seriously and not considered an entry-level hire.
- Live Attendants must come across as happy and cheerful on the phone; and if they are really at the top of their game, will be able to recognize those callers who regularly call the company and acknowledge them with either a “Hi (first name of caller), who would you like to talk to?” If they call for the same person or persons each time you should add that to your response such as “Hi (first name of caller), Sue is on a call right now, would you like to leave a voice mail or would you like to speak with someone else?” Invest in this position versus feeling this is an entry-level position in your company.
- Automated Attendants can be a valuable tool or the kiss of death. What you want to have is a quick and easy means for inbound calls to reach their destination. This is accomplished by first recording a short, but cheerful message with department code options and a method to enter extension numbers and/or a Directory. EXAMPLE: “Dial 1 for Customer Service, 2 for Sales, 3 for Accounts Receivable or 4 for the Company Directory.” They should also have an option to reach a live person at any time to prevent customer frustration. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of Automated Attendants as many take too long to reach a live person. My recommendations if you have an Automated Attendant are … don’t go into a long-winded sales pitch or history lesson about the company on your recorded message. Use the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) method and help your customers reach their desired party quickly, just like you would want to be treated when you’re the caller.
CP2 – Customer Service
Customer Service typically has more CPs with the customer than the Business Development or Sales Manager. Customer Service can be, and in many cases is, the most important CP in the customer relationship. A single call from a customer to an unhappy or rude Customer Service Representative can dismantle months and even years of customer relationship building. Ways to improve your customer relationship through Customer Service:
- Make sure to communicate back and confirm tasks, questions and order details before ending the call. Then, follow up the call with a quick email detailing the topics and/or order details.
- Go the extra mile. EXAMPLE: An order is placed 30 minutes after shipping cut off. Don’t promise it will ship, but work with Operations to see if this is possible – then communicate to the customer. I’ve even seen the Customer Service Rep take the package to FedEx or UPS to make sure the customer is taken care of. Little things make a difference.
- Make every attempt to diffuse friction and issues within reason. Remember, these are sometimes the most important calls and gives the Customer Service Representative and the company a chance to solve the problem and make it go away for the customer. Then, notify the appropriate Sales Representative/Business Development person of any issues brought up during the call and what you plan of action you are undertaking.
CP3 – Sales/Business Development
Sales/Business Development is typically responsible for initiating and maintaining the ongoing customer direct relationship. However, they also have some critical obligations and tasks to keep the customer happy, engaged and continuing to buy the company’s products or services.
- The adage of “Under Promise and Over Deliver” is in some cases hard for the Sales/Business Development teams to adhere to. By being too optimistic and over promising, you’ve established unrealistic expectations for the customer which can lead to loss of trust and a damaged customer relationship. In addition, it causes internal conflict between many departments within the company who are left with trying to pick up the pieces when the promise is not met.
- Written confirmations of the offer, the company’s defined policies and procedures, product performance capabilities, shipping schedules, pricing, delays, product issues and more are ways to create and maintain a solid, trusting and long-term customer relationship. By sharing these with other departments you can make others feel included and informed.
- Whenever possible, customers need to be pre-qualified to see if they are a fit with the company. Strange as this may seem to some readers, not all prospects should be customers. For instance, a company known in the industry for violating MAP (Minimum Advertised Pricing) policies may do more harm than good to the company and its other customers. Same is true for prospects or customers who cause so much turmoil in other departments that they undermine the cohesive synergy of the company and its employees. You have to be willing to turn down or lose the customer if they aren’t a fit for the company.
- Build on your customer relationships with regular contacts and meetings. Meal events away from the office are effective as customers are more relaxed and open in their discussions. Build relationships where possible that are long-term and go beyond business as those are harder to lose and typically less vulnerable to pirating by a competitor. But … don’t let down your guard.
CP4 – Accounting
Accounting, and specifically Accounts Receivable, plays a key role in a company’s success or lack thereof as cash flow is a critical component of survival. Sales and Business Development staff typically want to distance themselves as far away as possible from the role of collecting payments from customers and fail to realize the difficulty of this job. An over-zealous and aggressive Accounts Receivable Representative or Manager can undermine the customer relationship. Some ways to improve this customer interface are:
- The Accounts Receivable and Sales/Business Development teams have regular calls or face-to-face meetings to review problem accounts and work together to resolve the issues. Define a plan to improve.
- Sales/Business Development can make sure Accounts Receivable is aware of extended terms and or pricing, disputes, customer cash flow issues, problems or anything that could stall on-time payments.
- Get the Sales/Business Development person involved if Accounts Receivable is unsuccessful in collecting payment.
CP5 – Operations
Operations team members have another opportunity to positively impact the customer relationship and your company’s value in many ways:
- Produce a quality product, package it properly to prevent shipping damage, ship the product on time and communicate any delays or issues to Sales and Customer Service.
- Have some level of controlled flexibility in shipping lead times and order cut-off times.
- Work as a team player with Sales and Customer Service to satisfy the customer.
- If you deliver products to your customers in company-owned trucks, make sure the trucks are clean and the drivers are well groomed and courteous as they are representatives of the company. They should report back to the appropriate department whenever they hear of an issue with a customer or the delivery.
- Meet regularly with Sales and Customer Service to discuss customer feedback, conflicts and issues and define a plan to improve.
CP6 – Marketing
Marketing delivers your company’s messages to the world and strategically positions the company for success. They communicate the company’s value proposition and product or service differentiation in a consistent and strategic manner. Additionally, they should communicate your “We Care” customer philosophy as part of the many messages they deliver. Some added elements to support customer retention are:
- They should have a direct connection to the company’s customers for research and feedback about the company, market channel, products, competitors, etc.
- Be included in key customer and/or prospect meetings as needed to gain more direct input.
- Communicate their plans to the team in advance of launch.
- Track KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for the various marketing programs and share them with the Team.
- Meet regularly with Sales and Business Development to discuss their marketing plans and programs.
CP7 – Technical/Warranty Support
The Technical/Warranty Support department is your company’s 911 call center. They are either fielding problem calls or delivering answers regarding products. Your staff needs to be problem solvers and trained to diffuse conflicts. In addition, they should have in-depth knowledge of all the company’s products and a general knowledge of competitive products and how they compare to yours. Customers want quick answers and solutions, but also want to feel you care. Some ways to go the extra mile are:
- A quick follow-up email and/or phone call later in the day or the next day to see if the problem was resolved or to advise that a warranty replacement part or unit was shipped. You can add another layer of follow-up in 30 or 60 days, if warranted, to make sure all is well.
- Advise the customer’s Sales Rep of any problems so they are in the loop.
- Track technical and warranty support calls to create KPIs that can be shared with the team.
CP8 – Engineering and Product Development
Engineering and Product Development personnel are directly responsible for developing products of high quality that do what they say they will do. A bad product can damage, and in some cases ruin, the company’s reputation and damage customer relationships. They also need to provide a solution to the customer’s needs and/or desires. In many successful companies the end-user and the target channel, or customer base, are included in pre-product planning and research. This allows companies to design what the customer needs and/or wants which leads to success.
Every department and employee in the company is responsible for the company’s success. By harnessing the talent of the TEAM and creating a collaborative working environment, long-term customer retention becomes part of the company’s DNA and operating personality. This will be obvious to customers as they interact with the various departments, and a sense of “WE,” not “I,” will permeate every aspect of your business. I recommend developing KPIs to track major focus points and use them as a scorecard of your company’s performance. One additional method of grading your company’s performance can be gained through annual customer satisfaction surveys. If done correctly, these can be quite eye-opening and a valuable self-improvement tool.