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One of the definitions is: Customer service is the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently give the customers what they want and need. Excellent customer service should be defined as the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently exceed the customer's expectations.

This definition goes beyond the traditional way we think about customer service. It covers areas that do not come in direct contact with the customer at all. Manufacturing, purchasing and quality control may never talk to the end user of our products yet they are vital in meeting the customer's needs. The entire organization must pull together to provide excellent customer service.

Customer Service Improvement Focus Areas

Given that definition, how then do we go about improving our ability to constantly and consistently give the customer what they want and need?

"In order to compete in a truly customer-driven manner, an enterprise must integrate its entire range of business functions around satisfying the individual needs of individual customers - not just marketing, customer service and sales, but production logistics, and financial measurement and metrics." Enterprise One to One by Don Peters and Martha Rodgers

Organizations exceed customer expectations by focusing improvement efforts in three areas:

1. customer friendly processes,

2. employee commitment to customer service, and

3. customer dialog

Creating Customers for Life by Eberhard Scheuing

Each of these three areas has an internal component and an external component.

The internal component deals with the way the company acts within its own four walls. The internal component is viewed by observing how the various elements of the organization work together when not in direct contact with the external customer.

The external component deals with the way the company acts in the marketplace. It is viewed by observing how the organization acts in concert with its external customers and includes the critical dimension of the customers' perception of the organization. Combining the improvement areas with the components gives us a simple improvement matrix.

You must be excellent in all three areas in both components to achieve excellent customer service. Let's take a look at each of these focus areas.

Customer Friendly Processes

Processes are sequences of activities that take input, add value and create output. Customer friendly processes, be they internal or externally focused, are processes that assure delivery of quality products, on time, at a competitive price. Customer friendly processes assure the products are designed to meet the customer's needs and wants. World class internal operations lead to world class products for our customers. Customer friendly processes are streamlined and have the shortest possible cycle time.

All non-value activities are eliminated. Excellent customer service is achieved when the organization is committed to continuous improvement of its internal processes.

External customer friendly processes are processes that make it easy for customers to do business with us. Everything from finding us in the first place, to initial contact, through quotation and sales, order status, delivery and invoicing should be designed to make it convenient for the customer. How an organization responds to the customer after the sale is critical to retaining that customer. Post sales support should be dedicated to making the customer's use of our product a wonderful experience.

Employee Commitment to Customer Service

Customer service starts with a clear vision of the customer using our product. Employee commitment to customer service begins when that vision is communicated to and understood by everyone in the organization. Employee commitment is supported with policies that clearly state how customers are to be treated. Commitment is achieved when employees are totally focused on meeting their customer's needs. Excellent customer service is provided by employees who are trained to know who their customers are and how to exceed their customer's expectations.

Customer Dialog

Customer dialog is the means by which we know what the customer wants and needs. This is true for both our internal and external customers. Customer dialog is the method we use to assess customer satisfaction with our efforts to fulfill their wants and needs. Before we can even begin a dialog with our customers, we have to identify who they are. Customer dialog means listening to customers. In order to listen, we use a variety of tools such as, focus groups, surveys and one-on-one conversations.

Excellent external customer dialog means staying in constant contact with existing customers. All means and avenues should be used to find out what the customers want, and if they are happy with our products and services. We need to understand their world, their problems, their competition and their strategies. Measures of customer satisfaction must be developed and distributed through out our organization. Specific or individual complaints should be reviewed to see if they might affect other customers. The cause of the complaint should be identified and a corrective action plan implemented. The focus should be first on correcting the specific complaint then on preventing similar incidents.

Assessment / Needs Analysis

The first step in improving customer service is the assessment of each of the critical aspects of the focus areas identified above. The assessment acts as a strategic customer service improvement plan and training needs analysis that will lead to accomplishment of your customer service goals

There are many ways to assess your organization. Good assessment tools measure the following key issues:
1) Making sure you know what your customers want and expect.
2) Being flexible in meeting customer demands.
3) Treating customers like partners rather then adversaries or end-users.
4) Making it easy for the customer to do business with you.
5) Having a positive attitude toward customers.
6) Encouraging customer feedback.
7) Responding to customer problems.
8) Developing repeat relationships.
9) Seeking to exceed customer expectations

Improvement Priority

"Good customer service means looking after every whim of the customer but only within the window you have defined as your particular customer service product." Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard

The training and improvement projects begin with the internal component. This means focusing on internal processes and people first before going out to marketplace. Internal in this case means the processes that do not come into direct contact with the external customer.

Why internal first? No organization can be all things to all customers. An enterprise must first define what it does and what it wants to do. It must identify its unique core competencies for these are the source of its competitive advantage. You must first assure you can perform the basics constantly and consistently. That means excellent internal processes first. Nothing will damage customer satisfaction more then promises not fulfilled. Going out to the marketplace will tell us what the customers want. If we promise them that, and then we can't deliver it, we are worse off then if we didn't ask in the first place.

Customer's desires only have value in the context of the vision of the supplier. Before we can even ask a customer what they want, we have to frame the question in the context of what we want to deliver and are capable of delivering. When asked what they want, most customers will focus on one or two narrowly defined items of interest at that moment. If their last order was delivered late they might focus on on-time delivery. If the last shipment was of poor quality, they are likely to focus on the quality of the product. That's all good information but it only makes sense in the context of the supplier's overall vision of themselves.

Once we know who we are and what we want, then we can ask our customers what they want from us.

Never stop learning and thinking out-of-the-box... "The only sustainable competitive advantage a company can have is the ability to learn faster than its competition." Theodore Levitt

Remy M. Mauduit


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