In one of our recent columns, Rich discussed disrespecting customers (it happens in our industry and that it is not good) and we are going to expand on the topic this month. For your consideration:
Customers are the lifeblood of the company
Most wholesalers at least give this idea some level of lip-service. If customers don’t place orders with some regularity, then pay on their account as promised, the wholesaling operation quickly screeches to a halt. Most wholesalers are surprised at how fast they can go from thriving enterprise to one of the bankruptcy chapters when something bad hits the fan. Many bad things can hit the fan, even things that you thought were going to be good. Several years ago, a wholesaler decided to switch to a brand new, shiny ERP that was the latest and greatest on the market. Sadly, it was shiny on the outside (it demoed well), but was significantly flawed on the inside. As one exec later told us, not being able to ship material for 30 days reliably can be fatal. It did not end up being disastrous for this company, but it took years to recover its business and reputation. Having implemented the new software as a “game changer,” it was, as promised a game changer, but not in the direction promised. Customers lose confidence and stop buying with little provocation. Even payments that are clearly due get challenged over service and accuracy problems.
Protect your revenue stream
As a reminder, your backup plans and recovery plans must include how you will take orders, deliver material, bill and collect if your computers are taken out by a natural disaster or, even worse, a hacker. As much as your customers say you are their one and only, they will drop you in a second if you cannot provide the support they need to operate their business.
Customers are hard-won and easily lost
The cost of winning over a customer is often quite significant to a business. Someone told us that one of these new “we ship you the ingredients, you cook the food” websites budgets about $500 in costs to attract and onboard a single new customer. You must sell a lot of food just to recover that initial cost. Their business model must include a level of customer service that generates a very high retention rate. Over the years, we have heard wholesaler salespeople complain that they worked their butt off to get a new customer but quickly lost the customer as the operational side of the business did not properly value the customer, meaning they didn’t serve the customer suitably in the normal course of business. As you can imagine, this kind of situation can be devastating to the morale of the sales team.
Internal communication can often prevent some operational situations that will lose a new customer. When the salesperson takes time to brief the operating team about the new customer, inadvertent mistakes can be avoided. We think the critical information that should be communicated is: This (fill in the blank) is why this customer is coming to us. It is the hot-button that caused them to leave the other wholesaler, and to give us a shot.
The customer may not always be right, but is always the customer
Rich has preached this for years. It is critical the full team understands this and operates with this in the forefront of their mind. Whether the customer is right or wrong (excluding legal and moral issues) is not the issue, they are the one paying the bills and providing the fuel for the enterprise.
Do not allow your team to disparage customers, it sets the absolute wrong tone, and it can be contagious. It is a simple point but one that is not followed in many organizations. A customer will come in, get served, and leave. When gone, the wholesaler’s team takes the opportunity to discuss what a jerk, duffus, chump, idiot, etc. the customer is. This disrespect is often offered up in front of other customers. Doing it among other teammates sets a wrong tone and perpetuates a bad customer attitude. When done in the presence of other customers, it makes the wholesaler team look bad, and it demonstrates to the customer how they will be disrespected when they leave the building.
Dealing with customer problems requires training
All customer-facing team members need to be coached on dealing with customer complaints and issues. In a past life, it was called going to “charm school.” Whatever it is called today, the company needs to describe how the team should treat a customer when dealing with problems. Some thoughts on that: Customers often need to vent their frustrations without an argument or interruption. The situation will seldom be made worse by sitting and attentively listening to the complaint. Taking notes and nodding shows respect and sincerity. When clarification is needed, asking questions that are not argumentative can be helpful. Often focusing on the solution can move the discussion in the right direction. When a counter person or admin person is being overwhelmed or if the customer is disrespectful or threatening, they should politely transfer the conversation to a supervisor or manager. Often it will be helpful to script what the counter person should say when this sort of a situation occurs.
Put your phone away
When in meetings with customers, put your phone away and turn it off. Having your phone on the table, shows you are awaiting a call from someone more important than the customer. Unless there is an immediate emergent issue that you are tracking, you need to pay full attention to the customer first and foremost. (If you have an emergent issue, what the heck are you doing with a customer anyway?)
Customer service is not a skill that we somehow inherit through our DNA
It is a skill that we develop and perfect through training, by experiencing good and bad service in our lives, by observing managers and co-workers providing it to customers and by practice it. Managers must set an example and provide coaching to the team when team members do not provide good, respectful customer service. Managers must also provide praise when good customer service is tendered.
>> Greet all customers promptly with a smile. Ideally, by name. (People like to be remembered and addressed by name.)
>> Answer the phone on one ring with a pleasant voice, clearly stating the company name and the person who is answering the phone. We think this should be scripted, so everyone does it the same way, every time.
>> Hustle when filling their order. They will feel like you care about their order.
Tell customers that you appreciate their business
Every time they give business to you, tell them you appreciate it. Customers seldom get tired of being appreciated.