Peter Bigelow
How each company defines and executes service is what customers remember – and what sets a supplier apart.

It all too often is the little things that we remember most vividly and that can set one person, or company, apart from another. Consider a restaurant. A friendly, smiling and attentive wait staff can do wonders to make a customer want to return, while a staff of preoccupied, inattentive people can make the dining experience seem endless and virtually guarantee that customers will think twice before returning.

Service is not just measured by the smiling face of a customer-oriented frontline employee; it also includes the other little things that each company does, intentionally or not, to provide customers service (or not). How each company defines and executes service is what customers remember vividly, and for better or for worse, it’s the little things that usually set each company apart from the competition.

As custom designers and manufacturers, our industry is much like other service businesses, such as that local or chain restaurant. We have to provide service with a smile – real time or virtual – complete with attentive and friendly service to all. Most companies in our industry fully understand the importance of service, and focus on having a qualified, attentive, friendly person answering e-mail and the phone, providing pre- and post-sales support, which is indeed one of the key service offerings critical to success. Companies exert much effort and attention to the hiring, training and retaining of service-oriented personnel. Typically, every effort is made to recruit the best people available.

But what about the other things that customers expect as part of the service experience? How well do we understand what customers want vs. what we think they want? Is the same effort made to put in place the “little things” that are customer-friendly and service-oriented? And how often do we camouflage our own corporate self-interest, such as cost reduction, under the guise of providing service by putting in place “improvements” that are really just plain customer unfriendly?

To this last point, one of my pet peeves is banks and credit card companies that try to reduce costs under the guise of wanting me, the customer, to have a conscience and “go green,” so they, the bank, do not have to pay for the printing and mailing of my monthly statement or bill. It’s one of those little things that I remember – and not kindly! If the bank really wants to provide me, the customer, with better service, it will remind me that they are happy to provide my statement in either print or electronic format – or both – at no charge, rather than try to snow me with the “go green” schtick that invariably only causes me, the customer, aggravation, as I now must waste my time, paper and ink to do what they, the bank (aka the supplier), should be doing as a basic service in the first place.

Invoicing is one way we can be more user-friendly, but a host of other little things that individually may not seem too important could be what differentiates each of us. Common opportunities for improvement heard from customers over the years include a punch list of many of those little things, such as how certifications of conformance (C of Cs) are provided to customers, and how products are packaged for shipment, and even the most mundane tasks, like if or how order status is communicated. These simple processes run the spectrum from one company to another.

Those focused on providing excellent service need to develop a proactive culture, one that continually creates new and better systems to deliver the little things that count to customers. Something as simple as communicating when orders are shipped, or the order status, if done consistently and automatically, can make the difference between a routine relationship and an exceptional one. Equally, a process whereby the customer has to make the effort to call or email to find out what’s going on with their order – usually when it is late – is a statement that does not encourage repeat business. A proactive approach sends the message, much like the smiling, attentive restaurant waiter, that the customer is valued. The retail approach of responding only if asked all too often sends the negative message that as a supplier you just don’t want to make the effort to service your customers.

Like most of those little things in life, identifying what action makes a positive impression with customers, and how to do so, is all-too-often either not addressed or assumed to be already satisfactory. Worse, if the service improvement is sought as a way to reduce costs, it most likely will lead to a deterioration of customer service. Equally, once a service improvement is identified, implementation often proves to be far too difficult, leading to the unwanted result of even further deterioration of service. Simple is not always easy, and service needs to be viewed from the perspective of how you would want to be treated as a customer, not necessarily what you think others might want. It takes just as much focus and effort to create a customer-friendly service environment as it does to hire and train competent customer service staff.

Which circles back to the little things that make the big impressions. A neatly typed or printed easy-to-read Certification of Compliance may not sound exciting, but it sure beats a scribbled handwritten form. A quick email when shipment is made may take a few moments to send, but sends a strong message that each customer is valued and serviced as such. And never forget to say to customers “thank you” for being a valued customer – for your business. Again, it’s the little things that make the big impressions and provide service with a smile!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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