Raising the Bar on Customer Service

Having been in the kitchen and bath industry both from a retail and manufacturing standpoint, one thing is crystal clear: If we're not always looking at customer service as a way of doing business, then we are missing a major component of our business.

I'm sure that, without exception, everyone reading this column can think of an experience when you were not afforded the customer service you felt you deserved. If it was anything like the experiences I've had, you always thought you were right and simply just were not taken care of as the customer.

What did you do about it? Never return to that store or company again? Tell everyone you know about the bad experience? Or, did you just accept that as a way they do business?

Regardless of how you reacted, you must think about what your customers will do if they aren't happy.

SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE
Recently, I had an experience with a major electronics company that made we wonder how good our company's customer service is. I had just purchased a digital camera and the necessary accessories for it. When I arrived home, however, I discovered that the salesman had sold me the incorrect memory chip for the camera. Obviously, I was disappointed with the fact that I had to go back to the store, not to mention the fact that I couldn't use the camera on a job I wanted to photograph.

When I returned to the electronics store, I found that the correct memory chip cost $5 more than the one I was sold the previous night. I went to the counter with the new item and I told the store employee that I thought it was fair for them to do an even exchange for the product, simply to compensate me for my inconvenience. I was told that I'd have to see the manager. As I waited, I discovered that the very man standing next to the cashier was, in fact, the manager I was to discuss this situation with - but only after he'd finished up with some paper shuffling.

Upon my sharing with him my desire to simply do an even trade based on the circumstances, he informed me that the store policy mandated no even-exchange. When I offered to simply return the items and go elsewhere, he pointed to a sign over his head that read, "Any open box item returned will be charged a 15% restocking charge."

THE CUSTOMER'S VIEW
By now, I trust you get the point about this company's lack of customer service and the impact it has.

While we can stand up for what we think might be right, and win one "battle," is it worth losing the customer over? I think not.

When I look at the issue of customer service, I always ask myself the following question: "If I were the customer, what would I expect?"

I believe that if we would ask that question each and every time that we have a concern with a situation, then we might make different decisions for our customers.
Training along these lines is an important aspect of good customer service. All too often, we, as managers or owners, think that the employees of our respective companies understand what we want and expect for our customers. However, that's often not the case.

One critical area of customer service training is often our first and, perhaps, only interaction - the telephone. Ask yourself: How do you have your phones answered? Is it easy for a potential customer to talk to you or a designer, or do you have them screened and pre-qualified?

Most of us invest a significant amount of money on advertising to get potential customers to call us. Let's make them feel we're glad they did.

All too often, I feel like I'm an intrusion on individuals when I call for information from retail companies. That is simply wrong - and I'm sure the owners or managers of those companies have no idea that this is happening. Get your employees to treat your customers like they're the "golden goose" - because they truly are.

From the first time you meet or talk to them - and through the entire process - think "Customer Service." When customers visit your showroom, how do you qualify them? Do you have a system by which you can track leads? Do you have a follow-up system? If your salespeople or you don't make an appointment, how can you contact customers to see how you can be of service to your customers?

SOME SPECIFICS

Let's examine some ideas I've employed over the years to yield more business and satisfied customers.

First off, you should have some type of form to fill out so you can get the information you need to best serve the customer. This might be hard to believe, but many kitchen and bath retail firms do not have any type of system to capture the most basic of information from potential customers.

How about asking for their name, address and phone number - including work, home and cell numbers - so you can follow up with them? How about sending them a "Thank You" for dropping in or calling, even if nothing develops from the conversation?

In this type of note, simply state that you enjoyed meeting them, or talking with them, and you hope to be able to help them with their project as they move forward. Then wait about a week or so and call them to see how they're progressing. If you show interest in them, and their project, you'll have a greater chance of earning their business. Many customers have informed me that we were the only company to acknowledge them, and that's why they called us back.

I've also met with customers who've told me that the reason they decided to do business with our firm was that they found it to be the "most professional" one out of all of the others they contacted. Other times, I've heard customers say they called three or four different firms to get bids, and we were the only one who seemed to care enough to get them the information they needed in order to select a design firm.

As the project moves along, keep the lines of communication open with your customers. That's one of the most important things in delivering proper customer service. And simply leaving voicemail or e-mail messages doesn't count. Realize that real communication has not taken place until the other person understands and acknowledges you.

Once again, put yourself in your customers' place, and ask the following questions: What do you think you'd need or want in order to make a positive buying decision? How about more than you requested? If it's a design of a kitchen or bath, would you benefit from more than one potential design? Would it help you as a customer to see alternatives in product selection and pricing? What could you do that would make customers realize that you're there to help them? When there's a problem on a job, do you run and hide and hope it goes away, or do you shrug it off as being simply the pickiness of customers that can't be rectified?

Do you get the referrals you deserve, or do your customers feel that they didn't get what they expected?

We do many projects at homes in which another firm remodeled the kitchen or bath, but the homeowner did not go back to the same firm for the new project. Usually, I ask why - and, nearly always, the customer responds that the former firm did an acceptable job, "but we just wanted to see who else was out there."

GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND
Customer service is more than simply taking care of problems, it's going beyond what the customer expects. You can make all the difference in the way customers feel, and whether or not they feel like they were treated like royalty instead of like just another job. You can be the company that always "makes it right" and has customers for life. Sometimes you have to give up some dollars to do that, but in the long run, it will always be the best money you can invest in your firm.

Remember, customer service is everything, affecting the success and future of any company. Step back and take a look at your policies, procedures, and company, from the customers' point of view. From that perspective, making those changes will keep your customers coming back and spreading the word about your company to others. And your company will reap the benefits for years to come.

Editor's Note: Members of the Bath & Kitchen Buying Group (BKBG) will be addressing business strategies for kitchen and bath dealers in a regular bi-monthly column, appearing exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.

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