The customer experience can help gain market share

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Everyone seems to be cutting back on the niceties of life these days.

While cutting expenses to the bone can be good for business and has almost become a requirement, the trouble surfaces when expense cuts negatively impact the customer experience.

Middle-market companies that strive for excellence in customer service set themselves apart from their competition, gain market share and position themselves for growth now and as we come out of this recession.

Humans have selective memories. Ironically, we seem to remember the bad experiences more than the good. Perhaps that harkens back to days when survival was a daily fight.

Remember, a delighted customer tells about five people and a dissatisfied customer tells 20 – and usually passionately for many years to come.

Experts recommend that middle-market companies aim for customer delight, not simply settling for customer satisfaction. The funny thing is that customers often don’t know what they need to be delighted with your product of service; they just know when it happens.

“If the customer’s experience is such that their needs are completely met, the customer would claim to be satisfied,” said Ajit Utagikar, president of Photolar Consulting Group and author of “Customer Facing Processes and Customer Experience.” “However, each individual has higher expectations than just ‘meeting my needs’. They expect us to satisfy their wants as well.”

So how can you determine subconscious customer wants?

You can survey customers, but it is important to understand that surveys offer only part of the picture. Surveys are usually taken after a transaction is completed, so you only reach people who ended up buying from you.

There are many potential customers who dropped out of the buying process along the way. Learning why they did not buy can be extremely helpful.

Engaging with your customers throughout their buying process is a good way to learn what is working and what is not, allowing you to better understand their needs and make adjustments in real time.

“Getting a mortgage loan can be very intimidating. Customers don’t know much about the process. All they know is that they want to buy a house or refinance,” said Roy Clennan, president of Freedom Financial Services, a 2008 Better Business Bureau Award for Excellence in Customer Service recipient. “In 1996, we started a very specific follow-up program for anyone who calls us interested in our services to make sure we take care of customers throughout the entire process.”

Freedom’s customer service program consists of a follow-up call within two days of the initial customer contact, a second call in another two days, and a post-closing thank you letter and survey.

Any information gathered in the process is shared with the staff weekly.

“Our program tells the customer they are important to Freedom and that we care,” Clennan said. “We have relatively few bad comments at the end of the day because by the time a loan closes, most, if not all, the issues have been fixed.”

Attaining customer delight is a fickle process because tastes and customer expectations change over time. Customer satisfaction scores can stagnate when companies benchmark themselves to their competition and not necessarily the best in the business.

Utagikar recommends looking for best-in-class companies that excel in providing a superb customer experience.

“When businesses benchmark themselves against the best in class, care about the customer experience being delivered and act on it, they … gain market share,” he said.

Being empathetic also helps.

“If you can forget about sales and commissions and just ask how you would treat this customer if they were your mother or father, whether you made the sale or not, you make a good impression and that’s all it takes,” Clennan said.

In any economy, to continue to stay in business, companies need to provide more than just product and service capability. Given a choice, customers will buy from a company that offers a better overall customer experience and satisfies both their needs and wants.

Ann Snortland, principal of Snortland Communications, is the spokeswoman for the Peak Venture Group Middle-Market Entrepreneurs. She can be reached at ann@snortcomm.com.