Sam Kellogg | Sam Kellogg Interior Design

Design With Purpose

Customer Service: A Dying Art that Needs Reviving

Maybe it’s just me, but customer service seems to be a dying art in today’s business world. For every incident of bad customer service I manage to survive, it seems there are fewer and fewer good examples of customer service to applaud.

As an interior designer in Chicago, I’m on the frontlines every day with clients. Whether I succeed or fail in my business often comes down to how well I treat my client and not just my skill at designing an elegant environment. I like to tell my friends that I should have gotten a degree in psychology instead of interior design because so much of my work depends on to dealing effectively with people. In effect, being an expert at customer service.

Interior design is about relationship building, but I would argue that the essence of good customer service is at the core of any successful business relationship. If you can establish an effective relationship for 10 minutes, you can create a client for life.

With the economy on the slide, and paying customers at a premium, this might be the right time for you to look at how your business approaches customer service. Are you putting a premium on quality customer service? Are your employees putting the customer first? Do you need to fine-tune your company’s approach to customer service?

Here are a few helpful tips that have proved to be winners in my own business over the years:

1. Hire good staff. Your employees are a reflection of your business. Employees who are friendly and enjoy serving customers are going to send that message to your clients. Surly or difficult employees shouldn’t be let out of the stock room.

2. Train your staff. Whether you train them yourself or hire an expert, any time spent educating employees about customer service comes back to you in loyal customers and satisfied employees.

3. Give your employees the power to make key decisions. If something has gone wrong, let someone take the initiative to fix it, without checking with the boss. It strengthens employee morale and cuts down the time it takes to solve problems for individual customers.

4. Listen to your customer. By really listening to what they want or need, you’ll likely eliminate half your problems. Clients aren’t always clear about what they want, but if you carefully draw out their interests and listen to what they say, you will have won half the battle.

5. Always answer your telephone and e-mail. My cellular phone is my lifeline, and it comes with me everywhere I go. During office hours, I’m always available. When someone needs you, they shouldn’t be given a chance to change their minds.

6. Ask your customers what they think. Most people have an opinion, and they might just surprise you with how they view your business or staff. That doesn’t mean you’ll always like what you hear, but by giving them a chance to give their feedback, you’ll engender their support. Most importantly, handle complaints with the same speed as plaudits.

7. Surprise your customers with superior service. People have gotten so used to bad service that when they’re treated like royalty, they’re more likely to stay loyal customers. And it doesn’t hurt to give a little something away for free or at a discount. Everybody likes a surprise gift once in a while.

Good Customer Service: A Strong Return on Investment

With the economy still troubled and consumers wary of spending even a dollar, you need to use whatever tools you can to get a leg up in the marketplace. I count great customer service as one of those tools. In fact, it is the one tool that costs you little and can have the highest return on investment for your business.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin, a popular Web marketing guru, talked about the importance of maintaining relationships with customers over the long term. He argues that marketers often make a mistake in seeking more and more new clients for their businesses rather than cultivating clients who have been with companies for years.

“Attracting a new customer costs far more than keeping an old one happy. Not only that, but an old customer is far more likely to bring you new people via word of mouth than someone who isn’t even a customer yet,” Godin wrote.

If you don’t know who Seth Godin is, join the club. He’s an admired name on the Web, but that doesn’t mean his marketing “intelligence” has made its way to the average entrepreneur’s consciousness. Fortuitously, a friend recommended a read, saying he was someone who had insights that extended beyond the Internet.

My friend was right. Godin’s blog post tackles a subject that is often ignored by traditional marketing geniuses. Existing customers or clients are much more likely to buy from you, especially in this distressed economy, because they will reward loyalty. I find this especially true in my interior design business where clients will stay with me for years, even decades, because I have developed a strong bond with them.

Even in difficult economic times, the tendency for clients is to first approach someone they have a history with. I know this is true with me when I go shopping for products and services. Too much is at stake financially to trust your hard-earned dollars to a stranger, especially when you might be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an interior design project. And, yes, some families are still spending those kinds of dollars in this economy.

I also find my clients are happy to recommend me to their friends when they decide to invest in an interior design project. Who better than a satisfied, long-term customer to talk you up to their friends? My investment for such great marketing? Absolutely nothing, in the short term. Yet over the years, I have worked hard to provide the kind of quality customer service that distinguishes me from my competitors and has left my clients feeling respected and appreciated.

What I like about this long-term approach to customer service is the emphasis on the long term. There are no quick or easy answers to most problems. There is certainly nothing that can be resolved by dramatic outbursts at the client or at a contractor when things go wrong. Most solutions come at a reasonable pace after thoughtful discussion. Despite our desire to have it all fixed yesterday, sometimes the best solutions come in the form of a well-executed compromise.

I had a client who was dissatisfied with a contractor’s work, despite the fact he had delivered exactly what she requested. (A common problem in interior design.) Seething, the client called me and demanded an immediate solution. I knew the contractor had found the client disagreeable and had already moved on to his next job—an immediate response was unlikely and any brow beating on my part would prove detrimental.

My first step was to talk calmly with my client. As a business owner, I am the first line of defense (and offense) with clients. It’s my job to make sure that their requests and demands are addressed or to apply a firm hand if their tone or demands seem unreasonable. Luckily for us, the problem wasn’t acute, and she could live with it for a short period. Next, I met privately with the contractor, and we worked out a solution that fit his schedule and the client’s needs. Ultimately, his willingness to come back to the job, combined with my diplomacy, proved a winning combination for the client. She not only approved of the final product, she came back to both of us with additional projects.

Like most things in business, quality customer service must be delivered to solve today’s problems but with the knowledge that how you perform now will determine whether your client returns in the future. In any business, a long-term commitment to customer service is the surest way to boost your return on investment.

Customer Service: Reining in Expectations in a Bad Economy

While a number of economists may be seeing some cracks of sunlight in the dark cloud of the U.S. economy, it’s still looking pretty gloomy from my vantage point here in Chicago.

The belt tightening hasn’t really stopped in the nation’s mid-section, and that means our customers, even ones still flush with funds, are wary of spending too much money in case the economy tanks again.

Most of my interior design clients are searching for bargains and not wanting to spend exorbitant sums on luxury items or even to complete projects that they deemed necessary a few short months ago.

As business owners, I think it’s important that we adjust our expectations of our customers and clients at a time like this, recognizing that what they want to do and what they’re able to afford may not match up.

If they’re in a position where they don’t have the money to fully fund a project, whether its services or products, it’s up to us to make sure they don’t feel the constraints of their finances. A customer feeling shame about a lack of funds to start or complete a project is a customer who won’t be coming back to seek your help again. Embarrassment only prompts greater distance between clients and business owner in my line of work, and I recommend keeping it to a minimum when dealing directly with clients.

And even if you’re feeling their pain because your own business may be unstable due to the economy, it’s not something I recommend sharing. While my clients are good people, and many of them are my friends, I think it behooves us as business owners to not appear too desperate for the sale. By keeping your own expectations and needs in check, and not letting the customer know your plight, you are in a better position to negotiate for what you do require to complete a project rather than face questions about business choices from customers.

While you’re moderating your own expectations, you will likely have to restrain your customers’ as well. After a long history of working together, they may come to your store or office expecting the same high level of personal service and superior materials that you’ve always delivered in the past. But this time, they’ll be looking for it at a third of the cost.

Here’s where the veteran business owner really needs to put his or her skills to work to acknowledge the importance of quality work and then to outline how budget constraints will likely result in a different final outcome. A hard and honest conversation managing expectations is vital to the success of your business.

That’s not to say you don’t do your best on a project or provide the highest quality service you can. It means you’ll need to be more creative. It’s very easy to be creative when you have a seemingly limitless supply of money behind you, but finding innovative solutions when there are limits demands you tap into your inventive nature.

Part of the creativity will come in not only finding new, less expensive ways to approach a project but also in crafting solutions that take a new tack or change the way you bill clients for projects. Or you could eliminate additional fees you might have charged in the past.

Ultimately, you need to be willing to make less on a project today to guarantee that your customer will be there tomorrow and into the future. With everyone’s expectations in check, a good customer will reward you for your loyalty with a lifetime of business, and you’ll look forward to seeing that customer come in the door, no matter what the economy looks like.

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