Caring for Current Customers: Rocket Science or Common Sense?

If customer service isn’t rocket science – and it really isn’t – why do so many companies get it wrong?

Common sense goes a long way.

We all know it costs more to attract a new customer than to retain one. We’ve heard ad infinitum how social media has made it so much easier for a disgruntled customer to spread the (ill) word. And we recognize as well that the message about social media’s reach doesn’t sink in.

Too often, common sense is missing in action, because of the rule book, fear of a precedent, or just plain, well, ignorance. In retail in particular, empowering front-line employees to use their brains is all that is often all that is needed to resolve sticky situations.

“If you handle a complaint badly or with a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude or, worse still, if you hide behind the ‘rule book’, you will lose that customer for good,” writes Jonathan Farrington, CEO and founder of Top Sales World. He points out that one unhappy customer tells 10 to 15 others about the experience. “If it’s really bad, they’ll tell the whole world.”

Anticipate changes in expectations.

Yes, customers aren’t always reasonable. Part of it is impatience in a fast-moving society characterized by smartphones that instantly connect customers with the world at large. However, that’s not necessarily a reason to reject your requests.

“Customers have changed, and customer expectations have greatly changed!” says Becky Carroll, author of The Hidden Power of Your Customers: Four Keys to Growing Your Business From Existing Customers. “Social media has put everything into a new light as empowered customers are taking up their mobile phones and tweeting their distress for all the world to see.”

It’s about empathy, not money.

Outstanding customer service doesn’t necessarily require throwing money at a solution, but instead entails a clearer understanding and appreciation of the customer experience. Or, more simply, it means simply putting yourself in the customer’s place. Seeing things through the customer lens goes a long way toward understanding what frustrates them – no matter how trivial the matter may seem.

It’s about accountability.

It could be a company’s refusal to take responsibility for a screw-up. Remember musician Dave Carroll and his United Breaks Guitars saga? Instead of owning up at the outset to breaking his prized instrument and arranging reimbursement, the airline suffered a ton of grief – and lowered earnings – by stonewalling.

It’s about fixing the little things that rankle most.

More commonly, it’s the little things. Why not open a second line when the single checking line is full of irritated customers? How about refunding the purchase price of a product even if the guaranteed 30-day return ended two days ago or honoring that coupon that expired last week? These minor decisions on the fly in favor of the customer cost little and return a lot more in goodwill that will bring people back.

It’s about trusting employees to act wisely.

Southwest Airlines is a fine example of a company that empowers its employees. As Bob Thompson of CustomerThink points out in his new e-book How Customer-Centric Leaders Empower Employees to Drive Customer Value, things that happen that can’t be anticipated are where employees that have authority to act can be a tremendous asset:

“At Southwest Airlines, for instance, leaders believe that employees should use their own good judgment handling passenger situations,” he wrote. “And for the most part, they do. It’s one reason that Southwest has been leading the airline industry in customer loyalty for the past 18 years.”

I experienced that Southwest employee empowerment myself late in February in trying to get to DeKalb, Ill., for an aunt’s 98th birthday celebration. A snowstorm struck the Mideast the day of departure and I learned upon arriving at Denver International Airport for departure that Southwest had cancelled flights to my intended destination, Chicago’s Midway Airport.

While my wife and I sipped coffee at Denver International Airport, I called Southwest and learned the earliest we could arrive in Chicago was the next evening – too late for the mid-day birthday event. Standby wasn’t even a viable option given the number of others whose flights were cancelled or delayed.

Ah, but it all worked out. Thanks to two different gate agents there at DIA, and then another one at Minneapolis where we ultimately were diverted, we arrived at Midway that same day about five hours later than our original flight. We also were able to book a later return flight to give us more visiting time.

No extra charge, either. Southwest employees used initiative, we were pleased, and I shared that on Twitter.

Great customer service = no reason to leave.

I recently read an instructive article on called “Why Gen Y-ers Are Better at Customer Service” that observed a change in the value of great customer service in the post-recession economy. Unfortunately, the article no longer is available; however I did capture its key message.

“With geographical advantage largely obliterated in today’s world,” it said, customer service has become the “only sustainable competitive advantage. It is the only proven way to ensure long-term profitability for your business.”

Business, take heed! Keeping the customers you have is just as important, if not more so, than acquiring new ones. They can become the loyal advocates and evangelists that are the rocket fuel of your growth and success.

Paul Simon is a Web content curator, editor, and webinar host for hire. Follow him on Twitter @PaulContentMan