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No matter what you do, it's always about the customer

While sitting on Northcliff Hill one sunny afternoon overlooking the Johannesburg skyline I looked at all the big buildings and smaller buildings, the flat ones, the round ones, the weird shaped ones and thought to myself: what is the one thing all of these have in common? What is the one common thing all of us in business do? We provide for the needs of our customers.

This is the very reason why you are in business and if you are working for yourself, thinking you don't have a boss, think again, because technically speaking your customer pays your salary at the end of the month, no matter where you work. Customer service is your sole purpose, believe it or not.

Now, I am fully aware of the fact that most of us have read books about effective customer service, how to keep your customer happy, blah blah blah, but how many of us actually understand the value of true customer service. We have a serious lack of customer service in South Africa and the world - and the funniest thing to me is that we all want customer service when we are the customers, but when the tables are turned the customer becomes just another pain in the neck... something you have to deal with between 08:00 and 17:00, like the energy sapping traffic on the way to work, and the stupid unnecessary paperwork you have to do.

Since this is a marketing related newsletter, customer service most probably belongs somewhere else, but look at it from this perspective: customer service is in all likelihood one of your best advertising tools ever. Customer service - at this point in time - is like getting an unexpected ice cream for free when you're five years old - and I would like to really press hard on the word: unexpected. People all over the world have this idea of going to a store, standing in a line and getting irritated, to eventually pay for the stuff they wanted and walked around collecting in a basket or trolley. Customers all over the world are under the impression that they pay for what they bought or for the service they needed, but they rarely, if ever, get anything more than just that.

Right, let's get down to business now. I'm going to ask you a very simple question: If there are so many businesses doing what you are doing, providing for the same customer needs and so forth, what is the one thing you can do different to keep your customers and make sure you grow? Sure you can put together an awesome TV ad that will most certainly expose your product to lots of potential customers, but it won't help you to keep them. So what do we as big companies do as a first resort to provide customer service?...

...We bring about a call centre thinking this is going to solve the problem, not preparing the call centre staff with enough knowledge about our products, communication skills, and also sometimes lacking to inform them that they are the ones who will have to take the shots from the customers, so to speak. It's no secret that call centre staff turnover is very high and one of the reasons for this is because they work with only the negative aspects and complaints... a very demoralising thought, don't you think?

The other alternative is to employ reps and so on, to pick up and escalate issues, which is also very "cool" and great and so on, but what happens to the escalated problem after the customer has mentioned it to his or her first point of contact? In most cases it takes the customer phoning, at his or her own cost, again and again and again to get some sort of answer. Eventually they have to get rude and threaten with legal action or the newspapers. WOW, this sort of advertising is not good for your "word-of-mouth" image going around.

I must be honest; regardless of the number and type of industries I found myself in, I have only dealt with unhappy customers when nobody else helped them or came back to them (as promised) or gave them honest answers. This lack of help and assistance, sincerity and honesty - basic integrity - makes your customers feel unwelcome and unappreciated. When they feel unappreciated they feel rejected - the biggest fear known to humans, and the easiest way to retaliate is to get very upset and angry and threaten with all sorts of actions until they get accepted and satisfied. I fully agree that the customer is not always right, but then it is up to you to show them the way, to guide them with integrity and sincerity and to come up with a solution of some sort.

I find some customers just don't have the stamina to carry on fighting for their rights and maybe this is the reason why customer satisfaction is what it is in most parts of the world. We, as business people and business owners, will have to do a couple of drastic paradigm shifts over the next couple of years. As more and more jobs become redundant and more machines take over more people's jobs we will see more people open up small businesses, franchises, and so on. Competition will become fiercer and the one distinguishing factor for your company's success will not be its size, or the amount of call centres you have or the amount of advertising you do. It will be the level of sincerity and integrity you not only portray, but have! If you are a business owner or representative, are working in a call centre or anywhere with a lot of customers, I suggest you watch "Jerry Maguire", a man who was more passionate about his customers than his money and business.

Remember that you started your business because you wanted to make a living - your needs needed satisfaction. To satisfy your needs you found a need in the community. They became your customers because you could satisfy their needs, not because they wanted to give you their money. You are making money right now because you were able to satisfy your customers' needs up until now – keep it that way, or lose it all.

About Lehan Stemmet

Lehan received his B.Sc degree at the University of the Freestate, earning academic merit bursaries for psychology and biochemistry. While and after completing his degree in biochemistry and microbiology, he earned some extra money doing temp work for too many companies to mention. He has experience in science, human resources, data capturing, database building, information gathering, politics, sales, exporting and importing, human resources, counselling, operations, consulting and many more industries. He has also, while running a consulting business and second-hand office furniture business, completed a post graduate diploma in psychology and industrial psychology with distinction. After his return from Europe – where he played a part in the EURO change over project - he was offered a position as territory manager in KwaZulu-Natal for Capital Outsourcing Solutions (CAPOS). After almost two months he got promoted to business development manager and moved up to Johannesburg. Shortly thereafter he was offered the position of National Operations Manager. He is responsible for all the operational services accounts on a national level, including research, benchmarking, merchandising, field marketing, issue escalations, as well as selection, appointment and training of new staff. For further information / comments please contact Lehan on Cell: +27 82 345 0887 or E-mail: /

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