It can take up to 20 years to build a quality brand name, but just a handful of bad experiences can destroy it. The great entrepreneurs of our time believed this to be true. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg and Keith Merrill all bought into the concept that having a superior innovative product was not enough. Sooner or later, the competition will rise up, because if history has taught us anything, it is that success breeds success. You can design or create a new product or a way to sell to consumers, but the fact is, it won't be long until someone re-creates or duplicates products and designs, and you will at some point lose some of your competitive edge. The way to truly separate yourself is to provide uncompromising and undeniable customer service, ensuring that their buying experience is truly special. Have you ever heard of anyone who has had a bad experience dealing with Amazon or Apple? Amazon is so customer focused that it will literally send you a replacement for a lost package immediately without ever implying that the customer is at fault. It's no wonder that customers love their shopping experience so much that Amazon is the only place many customers decide to shop online.
The same can be said for Apple. When it comes to the in-store experience, Apple employees are so passionate about their products that I feel like I am talking to a polite tech enthusiast about their goods in the store and not an Apple employee. The result is incredible brand loyalty by their customers. Apple’s in-store Genius Bar customer support concept is brilliant, and I can't understand why more companies don’t do it. The result is Apple having the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the U.S.: more than $5,000 per square-foot.
The concept of a perfect customer experience must start with the owner of the business, who demands and preaches to his managers and employees that nothing else is as important as customers’ experiences and their interaction with your company. If you study the top companies throughout the United States, you will find employees who are more engaged and excited about their jobs. You will also notice you can literally eat off the showroom or warehouse floors because everything in these successful companies sparkles and is crystal clean because everyone cares about the store’s appearance.
The key to teaching and learning is repetition. You need to stay consistent in your message to all of your staff on how important it is to provide outstanding service. If you continue to provide average service, you are almost certain to slowly decline in your sales growth and you will remain stagnant, regardless of anything else you may try. Amazon has created a wonderful business model where response is immediate. When you enter an order, they email a confirmation. Other emails follow: when your order will ship, when they have completed it, when you will receive it (same day, or the next) and a tracking number that allows you to monitor the delivery.
If you run a counter-based distribution business, one choice is to run it like a McDonald’s-type business. This occurs when customers are constantly moving in and out of your store, and your product offering is small enough that your volume can pay for an inexpensive staff needed to do the job while still being able to ensure quality and speedy service. Or you can go the other route and sell at high enough margins to limit the number of customers so your expert staff can provide the value needed to keep customers coming back. The main constant, regardless of your setup, is that you are providing an outstanding customer experience; if not, you’re almost guaranteeing a loss of business.
We are fortunate to live in a time when yet another option is available, and that is to move your customers to the internet. If your website is robust enough, new customers can see your stocking levels, pricing and have total transparency into your business. Grainger is a $10.5 billion-dollar company that is doing 41 percent of its business over the internet. It’s an amazing statistic, and one Grainger is quite proud of. The average customer who purchases over the internet has a tendency to spend more and to be more loyal to the company they purchased from online. Web-based sales still require outstanding customer service or people will simply shop elsewhere.
You have to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective. You need to be able to teach your staff each day that when they walk through the front doors of your business, to look at the store as if it’s their first time there and experience it the way that your customers do. I'm a big believer in role playing and being critical of every individual performance and detail. You should practice how to handle various service scenarios and constantly drill so that when the critical moment arises, your staff can handle any difficult situation with ease. You are only as good as your weakest link, so make sure that all of your staff members are motivated to help each other, because as the saying goes, “When the tide rises, so do all the boats on the water.” Using the same metaphor: if there is a hole in the dam (a weak employee), the river will run dry, and all the boats will be stuck in a dry riverbed — meaning you all must gladly help each other to service your customers effectively.
Your team must work together, striving for perfect customer service, which they understand completely because you have taught them what it looks like and how it feels, and you’ve gone over it with the owner of the company and the management team that he or she employs. It is not enough for just top management to preach customer service regardless of how big the company is. The top performing companies all have the owner out in front leading the charge. This is vitally important.
You can have an unbelievable sales staff constantly bringing in new customers and convincing existing customers to try new products, but if their shopping experience is less than adequate, all that hard work is wasted. The top companies in the country all demand that their customers’ experience is flawless. You need to always strive toward providing your customers with new and exciting ways of doing business with your company.
Your work environment should be fun and exciting. If your employees aren’t relaxed and enjoying themselves, how are your customers supposed to enjoy shopping at your place of business? If your staff views themselves as unimportant, overworked, underpaid or taken advantage of, the vibe will rub off on each and every customer.
I believe in five-to 10-minute meetings every day with employees to review how they can best service your customers, and that every day, they are made to realize how important it is to exceed your customers’ expectations. I also believe that you should hold weekly staff meetings, but it’s critical that each meeting be organized by a staff member and not by management. Managers should meet with employees to make sure that they run the staff meeting the right way, incorporating the most important topics that make up superior customer service, which might be to discuss fulfilling back orders or making sure purchase orders to vendors are timely. But at the end of each meeting, regardless of the various tasks that you discussed, always conclude by returning to the topic of taking care of the customer and how your customer feels when everything is on point or how a customer might feel if these duties are not accomplished, thus making the customer suffer through poor service.
You only accomplish teaching and learning through repetition. Repetition is the basis of all learning. Deliver your message in various ways, but the theme should never change. At the end of the day, what separates good from great is the discipline to follow through and teach basic customer service skills over and over again until they are ingrained into each and every employee working for your organization. It is important to get feedback from your customers in dealing with your company. You should reward any employee who receives any form of compliment from a customer, and you should share these successes in your weekly meetings because success truly does breed success. You must create a culture of excellent service by seeking out employees who do good deeds and giving them the recognition that they deserve. The old saying is true, “We all are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Discipline is the spark that ignites the fire of a habit. Good luck.