Today, we seem to be bombarded constantly with news of the difficulties faced by business.

Is it all bad news?  Certainly not.  Is there anything a businessperson can do to overcome these pressures?  Absolutely…but success in these challenging times is never easy.  As always, it demands commitment, hard work and an obsession with customer service.

In difficult times, many businesses focus on cutting costs – an understandable and generally prudent thing to do.  But in doing so some cost cuts can cut corners on customer service.  This is exactly the wrong  thing to do.  Right now, service matters more than ever.  Here’s why:

  • When people buy during challenging times are extremely conscious of the “hard earned” money that they spend. Customers want more attention, appreciation and recognition for their purchases, not less.
  • Customers want to be sure they get maximum value for the money they choose to spend. They want assistance, education, training, installation, modifications and support.  The basic product may remain the same, but they want more service.
  • Customers want stronger guarantees that their purchase was “the right thing to do”. In good times, a single bad purchase may be quickly overlooked or forgotten, but in tough times, every expenditure is scrutinised. Provide the assurance your customers seek with generous service guarantees, regular follow-up and speedy follow-through on any queries or complaints.
  • When times are good, people make decisions quickly and sometimes don’t notice your efforts. In tighter times, people move more cautiously, and notice every extra effort that you make.
  • When money is tight, many people experience a sense of lower self-esteem. When they get good service from your business it boosts their self-image.  And when they feel good about themselves, they feel good about you.  And when they feel good about you, they buy.
  • In tough times, people talk more with each other about saving money and getting good value. “Positive word of mouth” is a powerful force at any time.  In difficult times, even more ears will be listening.  Be sure the words spoken about your business are good ones.

So giving great service in tough times makes good business sense.  But how do you actually achieve it?  Here are eight proven principles you can use:

1. Understand how your customers’ expectations are rising and changing over time.  What was good enough last year may not be good enough now.  Use customer surveys, interviews and focus groups to really understand what your customers want, what they value, and think about what they are getting, (or not getting) from your business.

2. Use quality service to differentiate your business from your competition. Your products must be reliable and up to date … but your competitors’ are likely to be, too.  Your delivery systems must be fast and user-friendly, but so are your competitors’!  Make a real difference by providing personalized, responsive and “extra-mile service” that stands out in a unique way which customers will appreciate and remember.

3. Set and achieve high service standards.  Go beyond basic and expected levels of service to provide your customers with desired and even surprising interactions.  Determine the “norm” for service in your industry, and then find a way to go beyond it.  Give more choice than “usual”, be more flexible than “normal”, be “faster” than the average and extend a “better” warranty than all the others.

Your customers will notice your higher standards. But eventually even the highest standards can be copied by your competitors.  So don’t slow down. Keep on improving.

4. Learn to manage your customer’s expectations.  You can’t always give customers everything their hearts desire.  Sometimes you need to bring their expectations into line with what you know you can deliver.  The best way to do this is by first building a reputation for making and keeping clear promises.  Once you have established a base of trust and good reputation, you only need to ask your customers for their patience in the rare circumstances when you cannot meet their first requests.  Nine times out of 10 they will extend the understanding and the leeway that you need.     The second way to manage customer’s expectations (indeed, to exceed them) is with the tactic called “Under Promise and Over Deliver”.  It works like this: your customer wants something done fast.  You know it will take one hour to complete.  Don’t tell your customer.  Let them know you will rush the project…but then promise 90 minutes.  Then, when you are done in just an hour (as you knew you would be all along), your customer will be delighted that you actually finished the job “so quickly”.

5. Bounce back with effective service recovery.  Sometimes things do go wrong. When it happens to your customers, do everything you can to make things right again, as soon as possible.  Fix the problem.  Show sincere concern for any discomfort, frustration or inconvenience.  Then “do a little bit more” by giving your customers something positive to remember – a token of goodwill, a small gift of appreciation, a discount on future orders, or an upgrade to a higher class of product.

This is not the time to lay blame for what went wrong, or to calculate the costs of repair.  Restoring customer goodwill is worth the price in future orders and new business.

6. Appreciate your complaining customers.  Customers with complaints can be your best allies in building and improving your business.  They point out where your system is faulty, and where procedures are weak or problematic.  They show you where your products are below expectations or your service doesn’t measure up.  They point out areas where your competitors are getting ahead, or where your team is falling behind.  These are the same insights and conclusions that people pay consultants to provide…but a “complainer” gives them to you free.

And remember, for every one person who complains, there are many more that won’t even bother to tell you.  The others just take their business elsewhere.  At least the complainer gives you a chance to reply and set things right.

 7. Take personal responsibility.  In many organizations, people are quick to blame others for problems or difficulties at work: managers blame staff, staff blame managers, engineering blames sales, sales blames marketing and everyone blames finance.  This doesn’t help.  In fact, with all the finger-pointing going on, it tends to make things worse.

Blaming yourself doesn’t work either.  No matter how many mistakes you may have made, tomorrow is another chance to do better.  You need high self-esteem to give good service.  Feeling “ashamed” doesn’t help.

It doesn’t make sense to blame the computers, the system or the budget, either. This kind of justification only prolongs the pain before the necessary changes take place.

The most reliable way to bring about constructive change in your organisation is to take personal responsibility and help make good things happen.  Make recommendations, propose new ideas, give your suggestions, volunteer to help out with problem-solving teams and projects. .

See the world from your customers’ point of view.  We often get so caught up in our own world that we lose sight of what our customers actually experience.

8. Make time to stand on the other side of the counter, or listen on the other end of the phone.  Be a “mystery shopper” at your own place of business.  Or be a customer for your competition.  What you notice is what your customers experience every day!

Finally, remember that service is the currency that keeps our economy moving.  “I serve you in one business, you serve me in another.”  When either of us improves, the economy gets a little better.  When both of us improve, people are sure to take notice.  When everyone improves, the whole economy grows stronger and there is no longer any reason for the depressing headlines to which we’ve become so accustomed.  So, let’s all start looking after our customers and let the economy look after itself.

And that’s worth thinking about…