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Expanding Your Concept of Service

Your definition of service shapes every interaction you have with your customers. If you hold the common idea that service is only giving customers what they want, you may well paint yourself into a corner every time a customer asks for something that is impossible for you to provide. If, on the other hand, you expand your definition of service to include fulfilling the multitude of less obvious customer needs, you will never encounter a time when you can't provide your customers with some level of service.

By addressing less obvious customer needs such as listening with empathy to customers when they have a problem or providing options and alternatives when you can't give customers exactly what they want, you widen the gap between you and your competitors.

Six basic needs

Every time customers do business with you, they are, without fully realizing it, scoring you on how well you are doing, not only at giving them what they want, but at fulfilling six basic customer needs. Following is a list of these needs:

  • Friendliness: The most basic of all customer needs, friendliness is usually associated with being greeted politely and courteously.
  • Understanding and empathy: Customers need to feel that the person providing the service understands and appreciates their circumstances and feelings without critisism or judgment.
  • Fairness: The need to be treated fairly is high up on most customers' list of needs.
  • Control: Control represents the customers' need to feel as if they have an impact on the way things turn out.
  • Options and alternatives: Customers need to feel that other avenues are available to getting what they want accomplished.
  • Information: Customers need to be educated and informed about the products, policies, and procedures they encounter when dealing with your company.

 

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A popular piece of customer service folklore states that if you give customers what they ask for (just say yes), then you end up with satisfied customers. This folklore is false. Customers do ask for what they want, but they usually don't ask for these six basic needs. When did you last go into a pizzeria and say, "I'd like one slice of pepperoni pizza, please," and then add, "Could you please be understanding, friendly, and fair?" Customers don't ask for these other needs, but they miss such gestures when they are not provided. To really provide top quality customer service, you need to move beyond the yes folklore to fulfill all your customers' needs.

The needs of your customers not only vary according to their individual personalities but can also change depending on the nature of your business. A trip to Disneyland, for example, is remembered for the fun and safety of the park and rides. These two service qualities are part of what makes a day with the mouse so enjoyable and memorable. Compare this excursion with a visit to your accountants. In this situation, your needs are more in the realm of accuracy and certainty. You would be suspicious if your accountant was having fun — when you weren't — and started to laugh uncontrollably during a meeting. Along with the six basic service qualities, dozens more exist that are specific to different businesses and occupations.

Reconsider who your customers are

Who are your customers, really? Too often, the definition of customer is limited to someone who is outside of our company. Look up customer in your dictionary. The first definition of customer is a person who buys. The second definition is a person with whom one has dealings.

In fact, everyone who works in a company has customers regardless of whether they work with external, paying customers or internal co-workers. Customers fall into external and internal categories.

  • The external customer: These are the people you deal with, either face-to-face or over the phone, who buy products or services from you. They are customers in the traditional sense of the word. Without them there would be no sales, no business, no paycheck. If your definition of a customer stops here, you are only seeing half the picture.
  • The internal customer: The other half of the picture is the people who work inside your company and rely on you for the services, products, and information that they need to get their jobs done. They are not traditional customers, yet they need the same tender, loving care you give to your external customers.

By expanding your definition of a customer to include your co-workers, you are taking a vital step toward excellent service.

The internal customer chain works both ways. Sometimes you are the customer and other times you are the service provider. For example, a co-worker may come to you and ask for a printout of a report. In this case, you are the service provider because you are giving him what he needs. However, ten minutes later, you may turn around and go to that same co-worker and ask for help on a project; now you are the customer.

The customer chain

The relationship between internal customers and external customers is what forms the customer chain. If you have a back room kind of job where you rarely see the light of day, let alone a living, breathing customer, you can easily begin to feel that your work has little or no impact on external customers. But if you look at the bigger picture, you can see that everyone in a company plays some part in fulfilling the customers' needs. Barely an hour goes by during the day when you are not, in some form or another, providing something for somebody. Each interaction with an internal customer is an important link in a chain of events that always ends up at the external customers' feet.

About two years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, "Poorly treated employees treat the customer just as poorly." Boy, does that hit the nail on the head! A frightening percentage of managers do not realize that their staffs are their internal customers, and that the quality of service that a company provides to its customers is a direct reflection of how the staff of the company are treated by their managers. Make it a priority to view your staff as one of your most important customers and treat them accordingly. Doing so means focusing not on what your staff can do to make your job easier, but on what you can do to make their jobs easier.

Many companies seem to overlook another very important link in the service chain — their vendors. By using the techniques of customer service with your vendors, you will not only enhance your relationship with them but also receive better service.

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