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To improve service, there must be a companywide understanding that customer service is the first job of every employee, from the president to the newest hire. It must pervade the culture. - Joan Fox

From the ready-mix truck's passenger seat, I studied the driver as he backed up, watched for the customer's vague hand signals in the mirror, discharged the concrete, and changed the truck's angle ever so slightly seven different times to deliver the load to exactly the right spot.

The job expertly completed, we were on our way to wash-out—no fanfare, and no kudos. Ours was the final piece in a long stream of interactions to get the customer what he ordered.

When you think about it, everything you do comes together at that moment. The customer is the purpose of your work, no matter what your specific job in the process. And sometimes it is good to remind yourself that the customer pays the bills, generates payroll, and buys new equipment.

The customer decides whether your company grows or folds, prospers, or barely survives. In business, the customer is the only one who has ever mattered.

Here is another reality: In general, customer service stinks. From the restaurant you just left, to the furnace repairman who came without the part, to the indifferent driver with a fresh load of concrete, it's all pretty much the same—bad.

Despite a decades-old rant about the topic, good customer service remains rare. How would your customers describe the quality of your service? Would they rave, or would they say your service is in a slump?

The iceberg effect

When you lose a very important customer, the incident that caused the departure is scrutinized, analyzed, and dramatized. The personnel involved are disciplined or released from employment. Losing such a customer precipitates a flurry of activities, most of them directed toward finding who is to blame.

But many fail to realize that this event has a meaning much deeper than the one incident. Yes, the customer will cite a single defining reason for not doing business with you anymore. However, the defection is almost always the culmination of many factors. The justification is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The big piece is hidden and it has been gathering mass for a long time. It consists of the problems the customer has encountered with your company over the years. And because it is not obvious, you don't see it.

So, how can a concrete producer consistently respond to the customer with great service? The answer is simple: inspect and adjust. You inspect slump because it is critical to the customer's needs and the overall quality of the product. The concrete must arrive at the jobsite as ordered.

Yet customer service too often remains unexamined and, in some cases, ignored. It is mistakenly looked upon as somewhat important, but not absolutely crucial and limited to the sales and dispatch departments.

Merely responding to complaints is not enough. Most customers won't complain when things go wrong. Statistics from E-Satisfy tell us that only 4% of unhappy customers will vent to us. So, a whopping 96% will go quietly away. Industry's competitive environment allows customers to go elsewhere.

And although the customer is not telling you he is unhappy, he is letting everyone else know. The company is often the only one in the dark.

Fixing it

To improve service, there must be a companywide understanding that customer service is the first job of every employee, from the president to the newest hire. It must pervade the culture.

Put a process in place to intentionally and systematically listen to customers. Document and use customer feedback to make your company's policy and personnel decisions.

Sacred cows are often the cause of customer dissatisfaction but never reviewed because, after all, they are sacred. Honor all customer feedback by giving it serious consideration. Examine policies that inconvenience the customer. These should never get in the way of customer service. Ask, whom does this policy serve?