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Maintain Personal Service as Your Work Force Grows
Maintain Personal Service as Your Work Force Grows

As a business expands, customer service can decline. Get back to personalized service to keep your customers and develop new ones.

By Bruce Westbrook

Your company has grown. It's a vibrant mid-size business. But getting bigger can bring growing pains of losing touch with customers who might find you’ve become distant, impersonal, too busy to be bothered.

Hold onto customers by personalizing service and keeping them informed, not jumping through hoops.

"Mid-size businesses are to the point where they've got visibility and growth, but have they lost the vision that got them started?" says Dan Parsons, president of The Better Business Bureau of Houston in South Texas. "What steps are they taking to address that growth? One should be ensuring communication with customers."

Call People by Name
"As you're growing, go back to the basics," says Peggy Morrow, author of Customer Service: How to Do It Right! A Do-It-Yourself Strategy to Keep Your Customers Loyal, Attract New Ones and Increase Your Profits. "Calling customers by name is critical. You serve many people, but when you name someone, it tells them you still care about them as an individual."

Morrow is amazed how businesses let personal service slide as they grow. "It's not rocket science, but common sense, so why is it so hard?" she asks. "With careful management, you can plant a culture of service and watch it grow."

BNMC, an IT services provider based in Andover, Mass., even has a customer service department for its business-to-business company.

"If you only have operations people, the touch point with customers may be good initially, but after the expertise has passed, who's following up?" says Roger Michelson, BNMC vice president. "What works for us is having a separate customer service team. They have technical backgrounds, but they are purely focused on customers and their needs."

As he sees it: "Technology is technology. The difference between us and our competitors comes down to service."

Choose Good Software
Keeping service personal is tough when you're growing. But sophisticated software that gives you information about a customer can help. "When a customer contacts you, have a system that calls up everything about them," Morrow says. "I love calling Lands' End because I never can remember what length of pants I wear, and they'll instantly tell me what I ordered last time."

Of course, calling isn't always easy.

"Businesses can reach us quickly by phone," she says. "But how would they like to be put on hold for minutes or have to navigate automated phone systems, as we do with them?"

For Morrow, automated answering systems are the biggest customer service mistake businesses make. "Unless you're handling thousands of phone calls per day, you need a real person to answer," she says. "That personalizes and saves customers time. I ask companies why they use automated routing, and they say, 'Well, it's easier for us.' But it's not easier for customers. Besides, their average time to stay on hold and not hang up is 30 seconds."

Morrow has seen businesses advertise that a real person will answer the phone. "It puts customers in a better frame of mind, instead of a recording telling them to punch numbers," she says. "That's so customer unfriendly."

Make Web Sites Simple
A personal touch can help at any point a customer finds your business, from walking in the door to visiting your Web site.

"Keep your Web site simple and straightforward," Michelson advises. "Don't let computer programmers decide your marketing plan." Also, ensure you respond to customers' e-mails.

"If you invite customers to e-mail a complaint but they never hear back, that pours gas on the fire," Parsons says. "You need to be ready to take bad news. Then there's nothing wrong with saying, 'We're sorry.' But learn from that mistake. Don't be gracious and not fix the problem, or it's just lip service."

Remember How You Got Here
Today's consumers are smart but quick tempered. "They want things quickly and efficiently," Parsons says. "Of course, the customer isn't always right. They should be reasonable, too. But they do have a right to be heard."

It's important to remember that for many customers, price isn't everything.

"When customers have discretionary income, service and ease-of-purchase can be as important as price," Morrow says. "And because they can go elsewhere, service does filter down to the bottom line. Don't get so busy as you grow that your customers feel unimportant. Personalized service is probably what made you grow in the first place."

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