- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

Your best customer just complained about an employee’s phone manners. Or maybe it was the turnaround time on an order. Or maybe your Web site isn’t very customer friendly.

These are customer service problems crying out for a solution. But if you really want to address your service issues, forget a quick-fix approach. Your small business and your customers will be better off if you look at service from a holistic point of view, one that includes all your employees, your internal processes and your technology.

Start with your company’s attitude toward service — it will help your employees when they deal with customers.

“The whole atmosphere and culture of the company needs to be focused on creating a customer experience,” said Judith Glaser, a New York-based organizational consultant and author of “Creating We.”

Miss Glaser said that in too many companies, employees are focused on serving their bosses. These companies would be better off being “open to a larger way of thinking, where the customer is the center; everyone works with each other to deliver an experience for the customer,” she said.

Dealing with employee issues, even if they seemingly have no relation to customer service, also will help.

Companies that are known for great service, such as the retailer Nordstrom Inc., “have this standard of customer service that exists to make employees feel empowered to make the best decision for the customer,” said Craig Chanoff, vice president for client services at Blackboard Inc., a District-based provider of educational software.

Delivering good service must be an integral part of a business.

“It’s an ongoing thing that you do,” said David Bianconi, president of Progressive Medical Inc., a Westerville, Ohio-based health care cost-containment company. “You have to always be aware of that and focus on that.”

Although a drop-off in customer service often can be a problem, sometimes it is part of growing pains, particularly at young firms.

“A lot of companies go through this — they have substantial growth but unfortunately … can’t keep up with the service that clients require,” Mr. Chanoff said.

When Blackboard went through those difficulties, it hired Mr. Chanoff to oversee and revamp its customer service. It focused on relationships with customers; now Blackboard has customer service representatives dedicated to specific clients.

The Internet is another solution to help improve service. About six years ago, Progressive Medical created an online system to allow customers to access their information, Mr. Bianconi said.

When you make changes in your customer service processes, don’t do it in a vacuum — get input from your customers to see what would help them.

Progressive Medical brought customers into the planning process.

And if you do decide to create an Internet-based customer service, be careful that you don’t lose the human touch that many customers still want.

Mr. Bianconi said his customers have an option of going online or talking to a company employee.

Perhaps the best approach to good customer service is to be proactive, by keeping in touch with clients or customers.

Knowing how they are feeling can help you solve problems before they turn into disasters.

Although e-mail can make communication easier, Brian Kaplan, owner of New York-based Impression PR, said business owners still “need to be getting on the phone or meeting with [customers] every other week at least and say to them: ‘This is where your money is going.’”

In a larger firm with many customers, that can be more difficult. So Mr. Chanoff suggested periodic surveys of customers not only to determine their satisfaction level, but also to understand what changes need to be made at a company.

“Use it for coaching opportunities for your staff,” he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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