Feature Article - April 2002
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The Art of Customer Service

What goes around comes around when you give customer relations more than lip service

By Elisa Kronish

Feed on feedback

You say you don't know what your customer's expectations are? All you have to do is ask. The Center for Customer-Driven Quality surveys reveal that 35 percent of the companies don't gather customer feedback at all. If you don't hear complaints, it's more likely that your customers don't have an effective way to voice complaints and concerns than everything's perfect.

"Once a customer engages your company, the No. 1 thing they want is access to your company—a voice, a person, an e-mail," Trotter says. If you're relying on e-mail, make sure you have a procedure for responding immediately. "It's better to have a Web site with no contact means than to offer the contact info and not respond," he adds. "A customer expects a real response within 24 hours. Good companies can turn around a response in three hours."

The Ritz-Carlton is continually revisiting its processes for handling guest objections and problems.

"We do a lot of surveying of guests to find out what's important to them, so we can focus on these things rather than on what we think is important to them," Marlow says.

The same goes for tents as well as hotels.

"We want our campground owners to see their feedback as free advice; it's a way for them to better their businesses," Regele says of KOA. When reading complain letters, Regele is able to set aside the customer's emotions to find the message and then find a way to remedy the problem for the future. And, although counter-intuitive, Regele says that "a person who complains and has a satisfactory outcome is more likely to be a loyal customer than someone who never had a problem to begin with."

The employee factor

Because feedback is often directed face-to-face, your frontline force can make or break your customer-service efforts.

"The environment of the company is created by the people in it," Marlow says. If you take time to hire the right people, you can trust them to handle any situation appropriately.

"Look at not only what skills they have, but what type of attitude," advises Peggy Boccard, facilities supervisor at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Littleton, Colo. "If we saw someone with excellent computer skills but didn't think they could deal with customers very well, we'd hire someone else," Boccard says.

The Ritz-Carlton looks for, holds out for and invests in people who are naturally service-oriented.

"People who aren't, won't fit well into The Ritz-Carlton," she says. "We can provide training, but they may find it's not a good environment for them to work in; it would be uncomfortable for them," she says. "Trying to hold out for these people makes business sense."

Also, don't assume you can take on all the customer-service responsibilities yourself. As Regele points out, a manager or owner might take negative feedback too personally, "like someone's insulting their child," she says. "We all have different qualities, and dealing with customer service is not one everybody has."