I have heard the term "out of stock" hundreds of times in my life. I have heard it from manufacturers, suppliers, vendors, salespeople, and even my own people. This is a totally unacceptable phrase.

In the service industry we "stock" service. There is nothing else. Since we stock it, because that is what we sell, how can it be out of stock? Service means providing what the customer needs in the areas we service.

When a customer is told something is out of stock, they don't tell you, "Well, OK - just call me when it is in stock." The customer listens to what you say, hangs up the phone, or waits until you drive away, and then calls another company to get what he or she wants.

Customers are smart enough to know it is not "out of stock" everywhere. Some company has what they are looking for, and they will find it.

It's About Customer Service

A recent survey of American companies revealed they lose more than 80 percent of their customers due to lousy or no customer service. This is amazing to me. This means the companies are just swapping customers back and forth.

Consumers often look for someone to listen to them about the experience they had with a purchase, product, or service from that company. Some companies could not care less. Some companies look at staffing a customer service department as overhead. Therefore, they reason, customer service can be eliminated since it is just a cost.

The last time I checked, customers are people that need to talk to people. If a customer has an issue, the company better have someone for that person to talk with to resolve the issue. Otherwise, that customer becomes an ex-customer.

The person may have paid for the purchase, product, or service this time, but it definitely will be the last money the company gets from that individual if the person is not happy. Customers will tell a lot more people they know and work with about how badly they were treated. The story never gets embellished or exaggerated, and a badly treated customer would never slant things to make the company appear even worse. (Yeah right.)

What has really happened in business today? I'll tell you. Customer service is out of stock. This seems to be a real brainchild of upper management in business lately. Everyone seems to be watching the bottom line like a hawk. It seems like companies believe cutting costs by eliminating customer service is a good thing because cutting costs increases profit.

At first glance, that is true.

However, when a company eliminates customer service, they eliminate customers.

The Right Business Formula

A simple business formula states, "If you don't have customers, you don't need customer service." Seems plain enough to me. If you have customers, you need customer service.

Looking at it from another perspective, it could be stated: "Since I don't have customer service, I don't need customers." A business is only in it for the customers. They are the lifeblood of the business. So why in the world would a business try to eliminate its customers?

I don't think companies intentionally try to eliminate their customers. I believe they lose their focus on how to do business. Many companies have forgotten their customers and just how important the relationship is.

I repeatedly tell my clients to focus on what is in the customers' best interest. If everyone looks at each situation from this perspective, the company can't go wrong. There are some companies that have excellent customer service.

It is in the customers' best interest for the company to be profitable. This way, the company can afford to attract and train the best employees to service them. It is also in the best interest of our customers for us to listen to what they tell us and provide what they want and need.

We seem to go to great lengths to market our products and services, and then when a customer responds, we sometimes treat them indifferently or badly. When we do this, we are telling them loud and clear that when it comes to customer service, we're out of stock.

Guest columnist Mack Heaton has assumed the seminar and consulting practice of the late Tom McCart, No Secrets Inc. He can be reached at 803-318-2383; mack@nosecrets.com.

Publication date: 11/08/2004