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August 2010

Building a B/OSS Business Through Common Sense Customer Service

Building a B/OSS Business Through Common Sense Customer Service

A bad customer experience has a way of focusing the mind.  Last week I had a run-in with Delta Airlines.  While connecting through the Atlanta Airport, I saw an opportunity to cut my travel time.

That’s when I learned that taking an empty seat on an earlier flight requires you to pay a $50 standby fee, unless you have “elite“ status.  Even though it was an expensive ticket to start with, the gate agent stuck with the policy.  So, I stuck with my $50 and sat there thinking about policies that treat some customers better than others, and prevent employees from making a customer happy when it costs the company nothing.  With plenty of time on my hands, I jotted down some notes and came up with four customer service and support principles that have guided Equinox over the years.  Here they are.

1 Treat your employees right.

Yes, you read that correctly — treating employees right is the first step to treating customers right.

Happy employees really are the front line of all customer support.  And happiness in the workplace means things like: working reasonable hours, having enough flexibility to connect with family, being well compensated, having reasonable authority to make decisions, and not being called on the carpet every time you make a mistake.

If employees are not afraid to take some risks and they understand that the whole purpose of the company is to make the customer happy, then they’ll gladly help you achieve your goals.

I know that people in customer support are on edge these days because so many companies are eager to ship their jobs overseas.  But at Equinox, we’ll never ship our customer support jobs overseas — or even out of state.  Here’s the issue: How can you expect a person you hired 6 months ago to do as good a job as someone who’s been working at your company for 15 years and knows your customers on a first-name basis?

Having satisfied employees who stay with you for the long haul helps you build consistent relationships and a vast knowledge base that drives incredible customer value over time.

Looked at more broadly, good customer service is hardly limited to the people who staff your help desk.  In fact, every person at your company — the developers, office staff, and even security guards — directly or indirectly support customers, so treating all your employees right creates a positive ripple effect that touches everything you do.

2 Be fair and consistent when it comes to pricing.

Going back to my bad experience with Delta, what bothered me most was they violated my sense of fairness.  Since my company paid $500 for a ticket that I’m sure others paid far less for, you would think I would at least get a break on the standby fee.

Now I know full well that a server in some remote Delta data center is dictating the price of airline seats at any given moment, but sometimes these inconsistent and inflexible pricing rules do more harm than good to a company’s brand.

As a software vendor, there are times when I have the opportunity to overcharge a customer.  Maybe the customer asks for something they don’t really need or — if it’s a customization — maybe they’re so desperate to get a change implemented we could name our price and they would have to accept it.

But I think great customer support says in those situations you need to back off.  If it takes only 2 hours to make the change, charge for 2 hours — your price should not be influenced by a customer’s desperation.

And a lot of this relates back to having a fair and consistent price list to follow — a price list that’s based on your cost and ensures you get a fair margin on everything you do.  Bottom line, if don’t exploit your customers, they are going to stay with you longer.  They are going to become good references and in the long term they will generate more revenue for your company.

3 Be Honest.  Honesty in sales is being as transparent as possible.

Honesty often means telling customers things they don’t want to hear, like: “I know this customization is really important for you but given the effort required, it’s going to be four weeks before I can get this to you.  Now I know you don’t want to hear that, but that’s the reality, and I’d rather tell you today it’s going to be four weeks than to promise two weeks knowing we can’t meet that date.“

There are times in the sales process when it’s tempting to bury important details in the fine print of a proposal.  Hiding volume limits, feature restrictions, or potential custom charges could make it easier to close the sale now and give you the opportunity to charge the customer more down the road.  In the long run, though, it’s always better to be very explicit about what is and what isn’t included in the sale.

Even then, people can misinterpret things.  So I’ve found you sometimes need to lean in a bit and say: “Hang on a second, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.  I am afraid that you may think that I am committing to doing X, Y, and Z for this price, but what I said is that I am only going to do X.“ Now sometimes the customer will say: “Sure, I get that, you are just doing X,” but other times they’ll come back with “Oh! I thought we were going to get X, Y, and Z for that price.“ When that happens you may end up losing a sale or going through some tough negotiations.  Still, you’re better off knowing now that the customer is not aligned with you rather than being surprised eight weeks later.  So having these awkward conversations early is critical to making sure expectations are set correctly.

4 Do the right thing. 

When I was completing my MBA, we had these business ethics discussions where we looked at case studies and tried to come up with these elaborate rules and algorithms for doing the right thing.  But it seemed to me that what we were doing was the opposite of business ethics! We didn’t discuss how to do the right thing but tried to find loopholes and ways to weasel around doing what was right.

Call it what you will — an internal compass, a gut instinct — we all seem to know what’s right and what’s not right.  But there’s a tendency at times to make the thing seem less black and white, to over-rationalize, and to weigh the various shades of gray on a particular issue when you should really trust what your gut tells you.

The reality is that knowing the right thing is rarely difficult — though choosing to do it often is.  If you establish a consistent culture of always doing the right thing, it becomes second nature over time and ultimately leads to fantastic customer service.

When you’re committed to always doing the right thing, you can empower people to make decisions on the spot.  For instance, I can authorize another week of development time to make a customer happy.  If that’s the right thing to do, we do it.  Because these principles are so embedded in our culture and business practices, I can make these kinds of decisions without hesitating.  And over time, we’ve proven we can run a profitable business this way.

When there’s been a miscommunication with an Equinox customer, we’ll take some responsibility for that and often eat the cost of fixing the problem.  A policy like that fosters honest dialogue with customers.  If they know you are going to do the right thing, they’ll often open up and say, “Well, this is what is important to me in this situation and we can live without X, but I really need Y,“ or they’ll say, “Listen I’ll take some responsibility for the fact that this wasn’t clearly communicated upfront.  I guess we’re both at fault, so why don’t we split the cost.”

And ultimately, if you can’t do the right thing for the customer, you give the customer their money back, which is the ultimate display of fairness, honesty, and doing the right thing.

Conclusion

So there you have it.  Four simple rules about customer support that can truly grow your business:

  • Treat your employees right.
  • Be fair and consistent when it comes to pricing.
  • Be honest.
  • Do the right thing.

Equinox recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as a company.  A testament to our great customer service policies is that in all that time we have never had a dispute with a customer that required an attorney (let alone a judge or jury) to resolve.

In fact, we have many long-term customers with whom we’ve never had a contract.  We have some customers who have us sign long, multi-page contracts.  When we get a large contract like that, we certainly read it, but we never send it to an attorney for review.  Why?  Because by following the four principles of customer service I talked about, we know it is our employees rather than a contract that ensures customer satisfaction.

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2010 Telexchange Journal

 

About the Experts

David West

David West

David West is executive vice president of Equinox Information Systems, responsible for developing and implementing the company’s long-term strategic plan, including product design and marketing.

Equinox Information Systems is one of the leading fraud and RA software vendors in the U.S.   Contact David via

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