By Bill Lynott
One of the most unforgiving of management errors is failing to understand and respond to customers’ specific needs. Companies that fall short of meeting those needs and expectations can expect many of their customers to take their business to a competitor.
While customer expectations and demands are constantly evolving, these seven perennial rules of customer satisfaction never change, and are critical to optimum business success:
1. Know the customer
At every level of an operation—from top management, to sales, to front counter—it’s essential to identify each customer as something more than just an entry in a journal. Gather as much information as possible about each one. What are they buying? How often? What for?
In an effort to understand customer needs, it can be helpful, especially at the sales level, to learn something about such details as the nature of the customer’s business, personal interests, family structure and lifestyles—anything that will generate the feeling that the business recognizes them as individuals with specific expectations and needs.
2. Listen to customers
Although skill in the art of listening is a rare commodity in humans, it remains as one of the most important requirements in an all-out effort to meet customer expectations. Since listening well doesn’t come naturally to most, it’s a skill that must be learned, and requires effort. Listening is not a passive activity. Focusing on what customers are saying and what they mean by their words requires energy and concentration.
Perhaps the most common tendency people must work to overcome is thinking about what we want to say next rather than listening to what is being said by others. While learning to listen well is not easy, it’s one of the most powerful pathways to meeting customer expectations.
3. Don’t wait for customers to offer information
One of the most effective ways to learn whether a company is meeting customers’ expectations is to solicit information. Telephone or mail surveys of random samplings are an easy and inexpensive way to learn about how customers feel about the distributorship and the services and products it provides.
A company’s own customer database contains all the information needed to help with the job of staying in touch with customers and giving them the opportunity to express their opinion about how well it is meeting their expectations. Once a method of soliciting information is set, stick with it; make it a permanent part of the operating philosophy.
4. Treat customer complaints as a valuable asset
While some unhappy customers won’t bother to tell of their disappointments, others will. It’s these “complaining customers” who are doing part of the company’s job by revealing how it has not met their expectations.
Some years ago, a major retail marketing study revealed that customers whose complaints were satisfactorily resolved became better customers of the company than they were before the incident that triggered the complaint. That knowledge alone stands as testimony to the value of bringing a complaining customer back into the fold.
Combined with the value of learning about a way in which the company may not be meeting customer expectations, customer complaints can be seen as valuable operating assets. Any time a customer offers feedback in any form about a distributorship, take the time to understand the customer’s perspective. Customers expect to be acknowledged when they take the time to comment on products or services and they expect a fair hearing.
Every employee should be trained to understand that customer complaints can be an important signal that the business may be failing to meet customer expectations. Sometimes, satisfying a customer complaint will call for measures that may feel unreasonable. When that happens, think of the cost in time and money as another step down the road to meeting customer expectations.
5. Recognize the telephone as a valuable business tool
In some business environments, a ringing telephone is considered a bother—an interruption to a busy employee’s workday. Every employee should be trained to understand that an incoming call of any nature from a customer or prospect offers a valuable opportunity to learn firsthand about customer expectations.
Consider conducting periodic telephone training sessions for every employee who answers incoming telephone calls.
6. Learn about the competition
How well are competitors doing in meeting customer expectations? The answer to that question is critically important.
One of the most effective ways a company can keep tabs on the competition is by asking its own customers and prospects. Conduct phone or email surveys to learn about the most outstanding qualities of other distributors. Better, yet, ask them personally at every opportunity; they’ll be impressed by the concern.
7. Meet the most common customer expectations
While the needs of individual customers will vary depending on the nature of their businesses and the owner’s personal business philosophy, some of the most basic are common to most customers of electronic distributors. They include:
✓ A well-trained staff capable of answering customer’s questions about product lines without referring them on to someone else
✓ High quality, dependable products at competitive prices
✓ Accurate filling of orders
✓ Friendly, helpful and knowledgeable counter staff
✓ Dependable in-stock inventory sufficient to meet their needs without long waits for special orders
✓ Prompt responses to their inquiries whether by phone, in person, or through a website
✓ A website that is intuitive, easy to navigate, and capable of interactive communication
These, of course, constitute a minimum toward meeting customer expectations and demands. By adhering to the above recommendations for listening to customers, more may be revealed.
Today’s economic climate and slimming profit margins demand sharply-focused attention on the challenge of meeting and even exceeding customer expectations and demands. This is not an easy task; it can’t be done without a conscious and dedicated effort. But that effort will be well worthwhile. Understanding and fulfilling customer needs is essential to any distributor’s success.
One of the most effective ways to gain insights to what customers expect and how those needs are being met is through personal contact. The next time you see a customer, ask how well you’re doing. If you’re not happy with the answer, it may be time to review the above recommendations.
Lynott is a veteran freelance writer who specializes in business management and personal and business finance. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or blynott.com.
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