Any good business owner will tell you that the key to long-term success is to offer excellent customer service. If your customers feel that they are being treated well, they are likely to continue to use your offering and perhaps even increase their purchases from you. Additionally, they will recommend your product or service to their friends, neighbors and clients. The formula seems simple—if you work hard to please your customers then you will find yourself on the road to success.
From its inception, one of the core tenets of my business was that excellent customer service was going to be our hallmark. Our clients were at the center of our organization and everything we did was designed to make sure that their experience was first rate. In particular, when I hired my employees, I placed a premium on attitude over everything else. Secretarial skills can be taught, using good judgment and maintaining a positive attitude through difficult situations is largely innate. The early results were exactly what I wanted. Clients loved our staff and raved about it to their friends and colleagues. Client turnover was very low and new customers kept coming in. The business was exceeding my growth targets and my expansion plans were underway.
Mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.
As an office space and services provider, one of the most important things we do is answer our clients’ phones promptly and efficiently. We closely monitor our performance in this area to ensure that the overwhelming majority of phone calls are answered on the first two rings and that hold times are kept to a minimum. As we start to stray from our benchmarks, we know that we need to hire another employee to maintain our performance levels.
Everything was going smoothly until something odd started to happen. Our benchmark analysis called for hiring another employee in order to increase capacity, so we followed our usual process and hired another team member. It didn’t work. Not only did our performance not improve as much as expected, it actually started to deteriorate. Was our new employee unable to do her job? Had our team lost its focus? Was our overall desire to serve the customer waning? I had to know what was going on and fix it.
A thorough investigation of the problem yielded an interesting conclusion. Our employees were providing individual customers with outstanding customer service, but in doing so were neglecting the impact of their actions on the rest of the organization. Whenever a client needed assistance, one of our team members would drop whatever they were doing and immediately help them. This was great for the individual customer that was being helped, but created a hole in our support for the rest of our customers. Our clients became accustomed to this type of service and increasingly requested it. As the demand for this level of service grew, we found ourselves shorthanded when it came to performing our regular tasks.
We fell into a classic trap—we instantly ran to help the customer that was right in front of us without thinking about the impact on the customers that were not immediately visible. If there was some way to quantify our overall customer service score, we were gaining a lot of points with the few customers who were receiving immediate help, while we were potentially losing some points with the vast majority of our customers who might have to endure longer ring and hold times for their receptionist service. The net result was that our efforts to improve customer service were actually causing our overall customer experience to decline.
We needed to restructure how we handled this type of situation. The first thing that we did was improve coordination and communication among our employees. Schedules were set up for “phone time” for everybody, and employees who had to step away during phone time to help a client would inform the rest of the team so that others could pick up the slack. We also got our employees to ask clients a simple question—“Do you need this immediately, or can it wait until a little bit later when I have an open time slot so that we can ensure that everybody’s phones continue to be answered promptly?” Since our clients are reasonable people, most of them were willing to defer non-urgent assistance until a time when their needs could be met without harming others. We continued to provide immediate assistance when necessary, and the clients who received it were doubly appreciative since they knew we were putting off other tasks to help them as quickly as possible. The net result was a double positive—our telephone performance dramatically improved and the clients who were receiving individualized help were generally happier than before.
The lesson I learned was that my customer service formula needed to be modified. Trying hard to please your customers may set you on the road to success, but without sound planning and careful analysis of your business processes you may find yourself stalled or, even worse, traveling in the wrong direction.
Adam Stark is the president of Stark Office Suites. Learn more about his business at www.starkofficesuites.com or call 914-428-0500.