Building a Customer Service System

The key to exceptional services lies in building relationships, and in the quality of relationships, with customers and with employees.

Over two-thirds of customers (68%) who seek a new store do so because they are treated with indifference at their current one.* Most people leave stores not because of terrible service or a horrible experience. Most leave not because of prices or selection or convenience. They find new places to shop because store employees do not seem to care whether they shop or not. Customers want to be welcome and appreciated.

All businesses, regardless of type, have one primary and common goal -- to serve and satisfy their customers. Satisfied customers are the number one indicator of business success. Likewise a consumer cooperative has one compelling purpose -- to meet the needs of its members (and potential members). Without a focus on serving members and customers, why should a cooperative exist?

Therefore cooperatives should have a doubly powerful drive to deliver exceptional customer service. In my experience, however, cooperatives often provide relatively poor customer service. As I travel the country and visit cooperatives, I am often checked out without eye contact or a simple hello. I am rarely greeted or offered any assistance by staff in the store. While our organizational structure and business success demands careful attention to meeting customer needs, our practices often don't support it.

Why does this gap exist and what can we do about it? This article will explore several ideas designed to help answer these questions. First, we will discuss building relationships with customers AND with employees to give life and vitality to the business. Next is an analysis of how attitudes form and change. Then we will identify the components of customer service. Lastly, we will explore developing a system to sustain the customer service effort and to change the organizational culture.

Building relationships

The key to exceptional service lies in building relationships with people -- staff and customers. The life of a business depends upon the quality of relationships with these two groups of people. By understanding and focusing on the needs of employees and the needs of customers, businesses create mutually beneficial relationships. Without the best efforts of its employees, businesses struggle. Without the loyalty of their customers, businesses fail.

Building a business on relationships to products gives no sustainable competitive edge. Other stores can offer the same products. Very few stores can sustain a price advantage against larger competitors. However, by creating relationships with your customers, your business can achieve and sustain a competitive edge. Relationships with people build loyalty that cannot be copied.

The basis of good customer service is really quite simple:

  • treat customers with respect;
  • provide them with the information they need;
  • make their shopping experience easy and satisfying;
  • when you make a mistake, make it up to them.

Why is it so hard to deliver on such simple ideas? The answer lies in part in how a business fails to build effective relationships with its employees. Employees need to believe in the value of each customer, to know how to serve them well, and be motivated to do so. Employees must be made to understand their mutual dependence with customers -- without excellent customer service, businesses stagnate and fail. Jobs, wages, working conditions, and raises are all paid for with customers' money. Employees need to think like owners when it comes to valuing customers.

To achieve this, employees need to be treated as partners and to feel as if they are important and valuable. Getting employees to think and act like owners -- like partners -- is a big factor in business success. First, it is essential to create an environment where people enjoy working. Employees must be basically satisfied with their jobs in order to give good service to customers. They must feel that they are respected and fairly compensated for their work. Unhappy employees will not give good service no matter how good your training programs are. However, cooperative employees sometimes have unrealistic expectations for workplace satisfaction and can become disillusioned. Being clear with current, new and potential employees about the nature of the work and the realities of the workplace can help employees develop realistic expectations.

Involve staff in customer service decisions. Front line employees in particular have direct information about what customers want. Including employees in the process of designing and implementing a customer service strategy helps motivate them to make it work. Employees are more likely to consistently offer exceptional service if they have been instrumental in defining it.

When employees are motivated and trained to meet customer needs, they can be empowered -- trusted to deliver great performance. While empowerment is a part of employee satisfaction, it is critical for excellent customer service. For the co-op, empowerment means improved performance. For employees, it means greater job satisfaction. For customers, it means there is always someone available with the tools and power to meet their needs. The basis for empowerment is trust in employees. Empowered employees have ownership of their jobs and have the authority to use their best judgment in performing their work. They are accountable for their performance and gain the respect of their co-workers.

An example of employees being empowered to give excellent service would be authorizing every employee to handle a situation in which a customer is unhappy with a product he or she bought, without having to tell the customer, "I'll have to get the manager" or "I'm not sure that our policy allows that." The employee would see the customer's displeasure as an opportunity to build loyalty and trust by offering whatever it takes to make the customer satisfied. The employee knows that management will be supportive and encouraging -- as long as it puts a smile on the customer's face.

It is probably impossible to create relationships with customers without a valued, empowered workforce. Building relationships with staff sets the stage for exceptional service. The next step is developing an attitude of caring for the customer.

Attitude formation and change

To better understand how to create and change attitudes, let's take a closer look at attitudes: a person's predisposition to respond in a particular way to something. All of us form attitudes towards just about everything. While attitudes are relatively stable over time, they can be influenced and changed. Attitudes have three components: emotional, knowledge and behavioral. (See graph.) All are important in developing a customer service program in your co-op.

To influence staff feelings towards customers -- the emotional component of attitude -- they must feel empathy and respect for the customer. One way to achieve this is by viewing the customer-employee relationship from the perspective of the customer. Storytelling about experiences as customers and role playing customer interactions put employees in the customers' shoes.

At a recent workshop, a co-op employee told a story about shopping in a hardware store where she had asked an employee for assistance in finding the electrical department. She did not feel appreciated or served when he did not stop or even turn to her. He merely pointed and kept going. I asked if there were any signs or maps indicating where the electrical department was. She replied, "Maybe, but he was right there. He could have helped me!" Later, another employee commented that co-op customers never bother to read signs. By recalling the previous story, we were able to shift feelings about customers from judging to empathy. Positive feelings towards customers are infectious in a customer focused co-op.

The knowledge component of attitudes is information and beliefs. Employees need to understand the relationship between customer satisfaction and business success. They also need skills to deliver good service and the opportunity to practice their service skills away from customers. As people have more information and skills in a particular area, they often develop more positive feelings towards it. Building knowledge affects feelings and changes attitudes.

Because of our feelings and knowledge about something, we develop behavior tendencies. Positive feelings about customers combined with skills will likely cause staff behavior to be service oriented. However, causing certain behavior also changes feelings and knowledge due to the dynamic nature of attitudes. Therefore, we can further influence staff attitudes by developing and reinforcing behavior based service standards.

Involving employees in developing these standards builds relationships with them and makes it even more powerful. In addition, employees can help develop a program of recognition and rewards that reinforces and sustains performance. As people are rewarded for certain behaviors, they feel more successful and build more knowledge about what works and what doesn't. Behavior influences both feelings and knowledge, and the dynamic nature of attitudes continues to improve service.

Customer focus components

A customer focused organization attends to four primary areas. (See illustration, next page.) Meeting and exceeding customer expectations in all four areas will build customer loyalty. Much like our personal relationships, customer service takes time and attention, but the rewards are satisfying. Employees can be motivated not only by organizational rewards but also because giving great service is fun and makes you feel good.

The four aspects of customer focus are:

1. Building relationships with customers: basic courtesy and respect. We want customers to feel welcome in our store. We hope they will like us and want to come back. The focus is on friendly, welcoming, and attentive behavior.
2. Providing information: getting acquainted. Employees must learn how to help customers by actively listening to them and giving them what they want. Active listening involves being aware of and sensitive to non-verbal as well as verbal messages. Learn how to tell when customers need help before they ask (or leave). Identify commonly asked questions and be sure employees have the information and resources they need to be helpful.
3. Service mission: show me you care. Build quality into every aspect of your business that affects your customers. Every decision, procedure and policy should be tested by asking, "How does this make it easier and more satisfying to do business with us?" and "What does this do for/to the customer?" Return policy, special order system, the procedure for joining the co-op, checkout practices, suggestions, phone policy, bulk and produce price recording and other policies and procedures need to make customers' experience easy and satisfying. It is our job to remove barriers, not to create them.
4. Solving problems: working it out. Teach employees how to solve problems with grace and concern. No matter how hard you try, sometimes things go wrong and customers are not satisfied. All employees need to be empowered to solve customers' problems. Businesses need guidelines and resources (coupons or certificates) to make up for mistakes. Employees need to learn how to effectively handle customer complaints and deal with angry people.

These four components encourage creativity and genuineness in customer service. Customers don't want "canned" messages or "cookie cutter" service. By concentrating on these four areas, cooperatives can offer individualized and sincere service for customers.

Developing a system

Lasting improvements in customer service will not result from training events alone. Building relationships with employees and with customers, understanding and influencing attitudes, and awareness of the four components of customer service are tools for creating a culture of service. However, sustaining the effort requires developing a system including strategy, planning, resource allocation, and evaluation.

In far too many co-ops, customer service receives little focused attention. We have developed systems to ensure accurate pricing, but not customer service. We make sure products are refrigerated appropriately, but leave serving customers to chance. We allocate resources to safeguarding cash, but leave the valuable asset of loyal customers unprotected.

Like these other systems, customer service should result from a strategy and a plan. We must first clearly define our service vision and goals. Everyone needs to understand and work towards the same purpose. I believe that every job description should begin with providing excellent service to our customers. Everyone should understand that serving customers is the first priority -- more important than stocking shelves, ordering products, or reporting to the board.

Additionally, employees need organizational and system support for giving excellent customer service -- training, policies, coaching, environment, and rewards. A self-sustaining customer service system depends upon excellent supervision and one-on-one coaching. Department managers and supervisors need to be skilled in giving feedback on performance in subjective areas like customer service. Developing these supervisory skills should be part of the customer service plan.

Providing customer service requires allocation of resources and like other systems must be monitored to ensure satisfactory results. Developing a customer service focus requires an investment of time and money. As with any investment, you should determine what return or results you expect over what period of time. While precise measurement may be impossible, estimate the value of satisfied and loyal customers and determine the investment required to achieve it. Monitor progress and customer satisfaction.

Conclusion

Customer service can and should distinguish a cooperative from its competitors. But providing excellent service doesn't just happen. Don't rely on training events alone. Develop a system including strategy, planning, resource allocation, and evaluation. Include employees in creating and maintaining the system. Understand how attitudes are formed and how they can change. In creating a service atmosphere and motivating employees to carry it out, attend to each of the four aspects of creating a customer focus in your cooperative. Make sure that staff have the skills and understand the desired behavior in each area. Implement employees' ideas for removing barriers to service. Build relationships with employees so that they will build relationships with custo

See other articles from this issue: #073 November - December - 1997