Creating outstanding customer service in your ceramic business

So far, in this book on successful ceramics, we have dealt with customer service several times. But the activity itself has been hidden within other chapters, such as marketing, your business plan, your finely tuned promotions, your hiring criteria and others, but we have not focused a chapter exclusively on this subject – your most powerful weapon and key to long term, winning operations. So let’s address that with more focus.

As you will see, when you establish outstanding customer service, you create an environment that is unbeatable in almost all aspects of running your business. In fact, with a winning customer service in place you will have a business that expands profitably, creates customer loyalty beyond your wildest imagination, out-competes any competition that you may have, and builds an un-crossable moat of protection around you.

Being so important, why is outstanding customer service such a secondary business aspect in our society? Let me tell you a couple of my life’s stories.

My first experience in Japan

During my first visit to Tokyo, Japan, I had to rely on taxi service from my hotel in Tokyoto get to my distributor’s place of business. The first morning, I let the front desk know that I needed a taxi. The attending lady immediately asked me where I was going. My distributor had faxed me the name and address in Japanese, to show the driver where I would be heading. While having breakfast I noticed that the lady behind the counter kept an eye on me. After finishing, she immediately came to my table and informed me that my taxi was waiting. She showed me to the door and walked with me the few steps down to the street where the taxi was waiting. As I approached the car, the taxi driver jumped out of the front door to hold open my door. I noticed he already held the directions in his hand. I did not notice that the price of the drive had been added to the directions.

I had quite a number of things to bring to my meeting and placed my brief case on the lid of the trunk while I maneuvered another package into the back seat. At that point the taxi driver grunted something and immediately removed my briefcase from the trunk and proceeded to use a cloth to wipe off the trunk lid. I could not see what mark I could possibly have left. The driver, with his white gloves, just stopped cleaning the lid and stood ready to hand me the brief case when I had settled into the back seat. The inside of the car was spotless. We set out to our destination in the incredibly dense traffic of this city of 18 million people.

Then it started to rain. During my passage to the office of my distributor, the driver was stone faced. We had no common language to enable communication, nor did I get the impression that this would have been acceptable.

As we arrived at the building of my distributor’s office, the driver, umbrella in hand, hurried out and escorted me to the front door while protecting me from getting wet. Once there, he handed over the note given to him by the lady at my hotel’s reception desk. He accepted my payment, refused a tip and returned to his car.

After experiencing the drive to the JFK airport in a New York so-so clean, smoke infested taxi, the contrast was so intense that I will never forget this first impression of Japanese courtesy, efficiency and cleanliness. I should add that I never stay at expensive hotels when traveling on business. This time was no exception. I had just gotten my first dose of common Japanese customer service. There would be many more experiences of this kind during future visits, but it would carry too long to relate here.

Needless to say, I stayed at the same hotel in Tokyo each time of visiting after this first experience.

Lesson: Go beyond expectations, surprise and delight your customer with your service. Start thinking of how you can achieve that.

A not so memorable customer service experience

The president of our local bank had become a friend of mine. He liked my ceramic business and always referred to how he was greeted on the phone by one of my employees. He told me that he referred this to his employees and asked them just to call us to experience what difference that friendly greeting did. One day we got into a more in-depth discussion and he asked me if I would speak to his employees on the subject of customer service. I accepted.

A few weeks later, I had prepared a speech to employees of the bank to be held at 7 o’clock in the evening at the office of our Chamber of Commerce. It was to last for two 45 minutes sessions, with a 15 minutes’ break in the middle. To my surprise, about thirty employees of the bank showed up. It turned out that they were somehow compensated to attend.

The whole thing was a fiasco. The audience hated to be there and considered the subject of customer service as having no interest or being of importance to them as bank employees. The attendees talked between themselves paying little attention to my presentation. I was then a regular lecturer at the local college and had never experienced such behavior before. My blood pressure soared and I advised the Chamber’s representative that I considered this a waste of time and that I would cancel the second half of the presentation. I announced that there would be no coffee break, nor would this session be continued. The attendees were sent home.

A few days later I talked to the bank president about this abject failure to get my message across. By then I had figured out that without a complete commitment by the president of the organization, the attendees’ boss, the message would not be taken seriously. I soon learnt that the bank committed to a complete revamping of the customer service approach. They hired a consultant firm for a half year’s program, defined their customer service goals and embarked on instilling each employee (who had contact with the public) with the seriousness of  customer service.

The atmosphere in the bank changed and it became clear to me that the program worked. The President told me that the employees liked it a lot and that it had become easier to hire customer service oriented people.

Lesson: Customer Service starts with management support - from the process of hiring to specific training of old and new employees. As a customer of the bank I noticed the beneficial change immediately.

How do you develop a winning customer service edge?

Why does a customer stay with you? It certainly is not by happenstance. It is because you add something special to your business that gets his/her loyalty.

Great customer service is not achieved over-night. It is an ongoing process. Keep the challenge in the back of your mind at all times. Ask yourself what you have to do to get your customers’ respect and gratitude by really caring for them.  A check list to build into your long term plan should cover the following points:

  1. Make customer service part of your business plan at the very start of your ceramic business.
  1. Think through what you would like to experience from the businesses that get your patronage.
  1. Make it an ongoing routine to find out what your customers want. Make an effort to learn how to find that out. Make it a signature characteristic of your business.
  1. Commit to gradually increase your level of service, one step at a time.
  1. Be realistic as to what your business can afford to do to achieve the level that you want to provide. Never promise more than you can keep. Having later to discontinue any service appreciated by customers will meet with lots of bad will.
  1. Make customer service training an integral part of what any employee of yours should understand, learn, respect and enjoy. Start with basic standards, such as:

-         Never let the phone ring longer than three times before answering

-         Check e-mails frequently during the day

-         Learn your customers names and always address them accordingly

This affects the type of people you select to join your team. Reward good customer service performed by your employees monetarily.

Why is excellent customer service so very important?

There is no contract that obliges the customer to stay with you. You may be losing a customer without knowing it just by ignoring what is essential to her/him. Learn to read your customers and estimate their degree of satisfaction. Take action if you notice early signs to the contrary.

If you lose a customer by surprise, you – or your employees – have not achieved the standard of excellence that you are aiming for.

Think about the investment you have made in each customer – the money you have spent to attract the customer to start with. Build into the calculation such matters as your advertising, the decoration and ambience of your studio or – if you are a potter – what piece of ceramics made by you that landed you this customer in the first place. Was it delivered on time? Was it immaculately crafted? Was it attractively presented to the customer? Was the customer delighted?

Establish a feed-back system informing you of the customers’ satisfaction. Just an occasional question or the filling out of a confidential form can steer you right in how to your overall performance registers. Ask for suggestions. Be bold and never react negatively to criticism – it should be interpreted as your compass (= the customer wants to stay, but only if you listen). Remember that if one customer leaves unsatisfied, many others may get negative feed-back about your business, whether true or not.

Every customer should be treated in a way so that you keep that investment for the longest possible term. This means that the more customers you have the bigger this investment will grow to be – and the more valuable to keep.

For the longest time the worst service businesses in the eyes of customers used to be  banks and the post office (this has since changed to a degree). Why should you have to stand in line waiting to give your money to a business? And, to boot, many times not be thanked for it? Should it not really be the other way around? Should not the experience of being a customer be one that gives pleasure?

If and when it does, your investment in customer service is paying off.

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© 2011 by Rolf E. Ericson, Oneonta, New York, publisher. All rights reserved. Photocopying, reproduction , copying, or redistribution of any kind in printed or electronic form is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.