And there is good empirical evidence to show that investing in raising service levels and satisfying customers is not a wasted indulgence. As long ago as 2002 Tom van der Wiele, Professor of Business and Management at the Rotterdam School of Economics, along with colleague Paul Boselie and Flecompany quality manager Martijn Hesselink completed a research paper into the links between customer satisfaction and business performance. A key element of customer satisfaction, they argue, is the service that customers experience in their dealings with a business.
One of their key findings was to establish a strong correlation between perceived customer satisfaction and service quality and sales and volume margin. And they also found that service quality had a lasting effect into future year’s sales and margin results.
One key area affecting customer perceived satisfaction was in the area of complaints handling. A fast response to the initial complaint and information on the complaint handling process allied to a satisfactory outcome significantly improved perceived satisfaction levels.
In an even larger study, Professor Claes Fornell and colleagues at Michigan State University conducted a study to correlate the financial results of 200 companies in 40 industries in the USA with the annual survey results from 65,000 consumers. Their research has proven that companies with high customer satisfaction scores outperform other companies by a factor of 4 to 1 over a series of years.
So investing in improving customer service can make a real difference to bottom line performance. And there is no shortage of customer service courses to choose from.
One of the main problems with measuring customer satisfaction is the time lag between experiencing the service and gathering and analysing the data. That can mean a delay of many months between a customer having an experience and the results featuring on any benchmark survey research. Continuously checking the feedback from customers can produce trends that help to gauge whether investments into service improvements are paying dividends. No matter what customer service course is undertaken, an element of faith is required before the empirical results will prove the investment worthwhile.
Whilst most people intuitively know when they have received bad service, defining good service can be subjective. For this reason many employees develop their own sense of ‘service’ based on their interpretation of company ethos, culture and reward systems. Therefore, service definition has to start from the top levels of management and be reinforced through the whole organisation. Every employee has to buy into the same ethos since the customer may well experience interaction at any level from the Chief Executive down to the security guard on night time shift.
So whilst basic customer service courses can address the very basics of courtesy and respect the whole organisation has to be geared to customer service standards if it is to truly portray a common front to the customer. That means that it is not only the sales or after sales staff that can benefit from a customer service course but everyone in the business.
It is essential that the prime customer contact points have a common level of training and systems that support their ability to deliver a defined minimum standard level. However unless the rest of the organisation are aware of what these individuals are trying to deliver it can be impossible for them to provide the correct level of support that would enable them to do their jobs effectively.
Likewise, the business must encourage and reward good behaviour and identify and correct poor behaviour. That means having incentive programmes that are correctly designed to encourage and reward whilst ensuring that dysfunctional behaviour gets quickly flagged to senior management.
So no customer service course can succeed on its own unless the organisational goals and objectives are mutually reinforcing. This requires time and effort on behalf of senior management and a culture in which it can thrive and grow.
Once this environment exists, finding the right customer service course to match the business needs should be relatively straightforward. There are a large number of telephone handling courses as well as conflict resolution and complaints handling programmes to pass on proven techniques and tips to improve the overall level of staff awareness and skill.
One key area that needs to be in tune with the service and satisfaction levels experienced by customers is the marketing team. Having a mismatch between what is being promoted to customers and the actual service level received can be damaging (if overselling and under delivering) or may cause the company to miss out on a valuable differentiator from competitors. If there is a good story to tell then make sure customers and prospective customers know about it. And this communication can start even if the previous service levels were less than satisfactory. Demonstrating that the company has listened, invested and is striving to improve is a powerful message but the actual experience then has to be positive in the eyes of the consumer.
Basic customer service courses are relatively cheap and can be a sound investment. Getting all staff ‘on the same page’ can also be motivational and part of a good team building exercise. Customer service courses can also reinforce culture and generate ideas for product and service enhancements for the future. The link between providing good customer service and future financial success is as strong as the management could possibly want. The key is to harness the customer feedback and make sure that the business changes to reflect needs, demands, opportunities and competitor pressure.
As has been shown in many studies, customers are prepared to reward those companies where they perceive good service with both repeat business and higher margins.