Early one Saturday morning – at 2 a.m., in fact – Rama Beerfas was playing detective, trying to figure out how a package she sent via UPS still hadn’t arrived at her client’s door. After some investigative inquiries and order searching, Beerfas, owner of Lev Promotions, in San Diego, figured it out. “The package got left behind by UPS,” Beerfas says. “It was totally their fault.”
What a relief. Except that Beerfas had seriously interrupted an otherwise peaceful night of sleep. She also set a sky-high level of service she might forever have to replicate but not always be able to meet. “I wouldn’t do it on a weekly basis,” Beerfas says of the all-hours package hunt to help a client in need.
Sometimes excellent customer service is called for. And, no doubt, Beerfas’s client was impressed. But, sometimes even the most exceptional customer service efforts can backfire, sabotaging distributors’ best intentions – compelling them to go above and beyond to the point where it’s no longer financially feasible to do so.
In a commoditized market where customer service can be a distributor’s best and only way to stand out, it can be tough to figure out how much service is enough. Still, distributors don’t want to provide service levels that will eat away at margins and their work or personal time.
Making the wrong move can cost you. “The moral of the story: Don’t invest in improving your customer service unless you’re going to do it right,” says Mary Jo Bitner, a professor and executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
Here we highlight seemingly helpful customer service moves that, while beneficial to clients at the time, might sabotage a company that adopts them permanently. Read on to find out which bells and whistles aren’t so ideal in the long run.
Above and Beyond Can Be Too Far
Offering the moon is lovely, until you can’t deliver it, says Lisa Anderson, president of LMA Consulting Group, Inc., a business performance consultancy based in Claremont, CA. “It doesn’t matter what you offer if you don’t come through,” Anderson says.
Want to hand deliver every promotional product your company sells? That might work if you’re a mom and pop shop where logistics are minimal and your clients are all within a 10 mile radius. But any successful business (and you likely will be with that kind of personalized service) is bound to grow. Which means the owners, sales team and other staff members won’t have time to leave the office for deliveries.
What seemed like a great way to rise above the competitive fray could come back to undermine you down the road when you can no longer offer such individualized attention. “Start with what you know you can consistently deliver, and your customers will appreciate your honesty and reliability,” Anderson says.
More importantly, experts advise, start with what you know can grow. In other words, adopt customer service plans that you can support as a one-man shop and a 20-person firm in the years to come so that you stay committed to being consistent.
In general, it’s important to resist the urge to reduce lead times, slash prices, ship faster or otherwise offer options to clients simply because a competitor does. “In today’s new normal, companies are feeling pressured to keep up, even if it means stretching themselves too thin,” Anderson says. “That’s a dangerous game.”
Customers want consistency more than they want increasingly trumped up offerings, and would rather have companies be reliable and fulfill their service, even if it means not delivering it at a Ritz-Carlton level.
Dennis Reina agrees. “Research has shown that loyalty has more to do with how well companies deliver on basic promises than it does by dazzling them with exceptional experience,” says Reina, president of The Reina Trust Building Institute, a leadership training firm in Stowe, VT, and author of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization.
Lack of Clear Policies
One of the biggest keys to seemingly great customer service is establishing client expectations, says Alan Berkson, director of community outreach for Freshdesk, a NY-based customer support solution company. But often one employee will decide for himself and a few key clients what those expectations should be, without consulting anyone else. Employees who respond to any demand at any hour, or offer to drive 200 miles to drop a package at their favorite client, are certainly currying favor.
But those gestures can have repercussions, Berkson says. In part they’re sending the message that customers, not the company, are in charge of setting customer service parameters and expectations. “Particularly in the business-to-business world, when customers set the expectations, you’re setting them up not to meet them,” Berkson says.
The occasional rogue employee who offers services beyond his company’s policies may be enhancing his client relationships for now, experts admit. But the long-term outcome can be disastrous. “If an employee is taking their own initiative that’s great,” Berkson says, “but it’s not duplicate-able.”
Employees who treat one client differently run the risk of alienating that customer when they’re not there to service them – when the employee is on vacation, for example, or out sick.
Occasionally, if that employee’s tactics are exemplary, realistic and cost effective for the company, it’s smarter to raise every employee to the customer service level of the outlying rep, says Linda Henman, president of Henman Performance Group, an executive coaching firm based in Chesterfield, MO. “Decide what the performance standard is,” Henman says, then make sure the entire team not only operates in the same manner, but agrees not to deviate. Ultimately, it’s important to rein-in rogue employees who offer cost-prohibitive service so that they aren’t coddling customers the company doesn’t value.
Enough with the E-mails
Perhaps the best thing about modern technology is that you know when your order is ready – and anything else you want to know about it: when it’s cut; when it’s sewn; when it’s shrink wrapped, packaged, taped, thrown on the van and every point it traverses until it’s in your office. The problem is, not everybody wants or cares to know all of that.
One of the easiest ways for companies to offer attention to clients these days is via technology – e-mail updates, automated phone calls, text alerts and the like. But what they often don’t consider is how many similar messages their clients are being inundated with from other vendors or contacts. What starts out as well-intentioned updating can end up angering and even alienating a top client.
It’s become such an assumed tactic that people are prone to hover even in person. Reina recalls a recent client lunch he had that was so over-serviced he vowed never to return to the restaurant. Reina and his clients sat down to lunch only to be greeted by their waitress moments later. That seemed attentive. But when the manager showed up seconds later, it seemed like overkill. Moments after that, when Reina was midway through a prospective pitch, he was interrupted once more by the owner, asking how they liked their meals.
“We hadn’t even gotten our meals yet,” Reina says, recalling how perplexed and annoyed they were with the relentless doting. “We were getting interrupted left and right and couldn’t even complete a sentence” without the hostess, manager or waitress interrupting to check on their dining experience, Reina recalls. “It’s like customer service on steroids. Can you overdo a good thing? Yes. I wouldn’t go back there again.”
“My rule of thumb is that I try not to communicate more than I want to be communicated with,” says Jeff Toister, founder of Toister Performance Solutions Inc., a customer service consultancy in San Diego. But that can be different for each person.
Distributors can easily gauge what works for their clients by asking them if they should ramp up contact or tone it down. Sometimes how well your communication is working can be determined without even asking. One of the best ways to know if your customer service is overstepping the bounds is to take a look at how many “one and done” deals your company has, says Toister. “Look at your customer retention rate,” he says. “That’s all you need to know.”
Sure, We Can Do Anything
In a market where companies look for any way to stand out, green-lighting every client request may seem like a smart way to retain customers. But that’s also the fastest way to get in over your head with customer service demands and costs, Reina says.
A customer service manager should not only be tracking the cost of doing business against customer service needs, but be clearly defining those limits to their customer service team. “You have to clearly define limits to the basic service package,” Reina says.
Offering different levels of packages – at a higher cost – is one way to make sure both clients and staff are on the same page and not inclined to push customer service boundaries. Otherwise, experts say, customers will realize the sky’s the limit and push account execs to offer more and more perks, that eventually they may feel pressured to promise, but be unable to deliver.
One additional concern with saying yes to every customer request is that it often creates more work for a customer service team. And that leads to multi-tasking, says Toister, which, he adds, is never a good idea. This is a huge problem among today’s customer service teams, Toister insists. “Our brains can only focus on one conscious thought at a time. When we multitask we go slower and get less work done, and tend to make more errors. But it doesn’t feel that way because we’re so busy,” he says.
Ultimately, distributors need to determine how much customer service they can provide without paying too great a price. “Every business wants to deliver an experience that keeps customers coming back,” says Reina. “But it’s a delicate balance between satisfying customers and maintaining profitability and margins. It’s a real dance.”