I'm a fanatic about providing excellent customer service. I'm also a fanatic about receiving excellent customer service.

As a method to provide excellent customer service, I want to emphasize the importance of training and empowering your people to make decisions that will help retain customers, not turn them away. This means train and empower the front-line people - the people that actually come in contact with the customer. Train them to realize that the company is in business because of the customer and empower them with the authority to do the right things to make a happy customer.

Unfortunately, front-line personnel are not always given proper customer relations training. In fact, sometimes you wonder if they have received any training at all. Think of the front-line people you deal with on an everyday basis in fast food restaurants. Wouldn't it be nice to be served by someone who was actually interested in serving you and had been trained in the proper way?

Sadly, we are so used to receiving unprofessional service that we seemingly not only expect it but accept it as well. We shouldn't have to accept less than professional service, and we certainly should make sure we don't give our customers the impression that our employees have not been trained in customer service. For the prices we have to charge to be successful, we need to make sure we are providing trained professionals.

Working The Front Line

In HVAC contracting companies, our most important front-line employees are service technicians. Most of our sales leads come as a result of our service department. This puts even greater emphasis on the importance of the service technician. Our service technicians need to be "selling" the customer on their competence as well as the professionalism of the company without overselling those points.

Unfortunately, most technicians don't have natural sales skills. It's up to us to regularly emphasize the important position they hold within the company.

We hold regular service meetings where our service manager discusses any issues that have occurred as well as goes over the frequent complimentary letters we receive. We put out a monthly company newsletter, which in addition to the normal newsletter items, contains continual reminders to all of our employees as to how important it is to treat the customer properly.

Even in our new construction department, the installers are sometimes required to make a call on an occupied residence to check or repair something. In this position, they become front-line employees who must treat the customer and the customer's home just as a service technician would.

It is very important to remind your employees of the value of obtaining and retaining a customer. It may cost over $300 to obtain a new customer and, over the years, the value of each existing customer is in the thousands of dollars. Let your front-line people know that they have the authority to take any reasonable steps necessary to satisfy a customer.

Case In Point

I had a recent encounter that is a great example of my point. During a recent ski vacation, we requested exchanging four of our group's 27 lift tickets for a different location. There would be no cost to the ski rental company if it accommodated our request.

However, the front-line employee indicated he would only follow "company policy" (I hate those words), which held that there were no refunds or exchanges on lift tickets. He was not empowered to ensure customer satisfaction. As a result, our group of nine people will be taking our business to a competing ski rental location next year.

I believe that you really do want to satisfy your customers. But do you train your employees to serve the customer and do you empower the employees, especially the front-line employees, to make decisions necessary to ensure customer satisfaction? If you don't, your customers will likely take their money to your competitor down the street.

Guest columnist Butch Welsch operates Welsch Heating & Cooling in St. Louis. He can be reached by e-mail at Welsch1@primary.net.

Publication date: 04/04/2005