It really is good to talk

Customer relations: how much, how often, how well you interact with your customers. So what are you going to do about it?

Building bridges
The typical proactive routes used for contacting those on the other side of the sale:
1. face to face: focus groups
notoriously hard to estimate exactly how representative they are of your full customer base, at least you hear the feedback straight from the happy customer’s mouth.

Typically should:
be led by an independent facilitator
offer the customer complete confidentiality
obtain consent to tape or allow hidden observers
never lead the customer – if you do, the value of the information you receive will be prejudiced
2. from a distance: help lines
at least info is direct to and from them; the value of help lines includes:

the feedback a company can receive from customer queries to improve the service they provide
the reduced cost of (hopefully) resolving queries and problems without having to leave the office
sales without the middle man

Research by the Henley Centre consultancy has found that call centres are producing high levels of customer dissatisfaction:

More than one in ten calls leave customers feeling irritated, anxious or furious as a result, the research finds that some companies would do better to close their call centres, such is the damage being caused to their reputations image building: even if the customer never rings, they know the service is there
… provided of course they can get through
3. shot in the dark: the questionnaire
The pros and cons:

ACTING ON THE SURVEY at Toyota, key problems from customer surveys are highlighted, but senior management only deals with 2-4 problems at once to maintain management focus
at American Express and British Airways, the problems to be placed before top management are chosen according to the level of customer base and revenue which are put at risk by leaving the problem unresolved.
the anonymity of them may well encourage customers to be more ‘frank’
unlike help lines in which the company must take a reactive approach, questionnaires the company takes the initiative, and therefore more control ageing data: the data rolls in monthly, but is reviewed only annually
if sent at by snail mail (post), may come in at a snail’s pace – so by the time you receive and analyse the replies, your competitors have stolen the march  (see also Successful Customer Surveys) facing the music
The reactive approach: i.e. handling customer complaints Even in the UK, with its tradition of non-direct confrontation, customers are becoming vociferous about their rights – and their dissatisfaction. Managing complaints is a key aspect of managing customer relations:

encourage customers to complain and make it easy for them to do so
be glad that they complain -; think of what you will never know from all the customers who don’t come back; and think of it as a chance to turn dissatisfied waverers into satisfied customers; many companies rely on customer-initiated complaints – eg comment cards – where a more proactive approach, such as asking customers’ comments at point of delivery, might be required

BARCLAYS Shortly after announcing record half year profits – which generated record anger from customers – Barclays Bank launched its national customer complaint initiative: any of its seven million personal customers complaining in person at a branch is given a written record of the complaint by a member of staff, who is responsible for resolving the complaint. Complaints are monitored in order to create a model of better service standards and identify improvements needed.

respond promptly
eg to every letter received as soon as possible: set yourself a minimum standard, eg within five days; a quick response conveys to the customer that you take them seriously

address customer’s issues or problem directly don’t just send a standard ‘thank you for contacting us’ letter; a personal response gives the opportunity to listen, ask questions, apologise and suggest remedy

make sure the respondent is someone in a managerial position who has the authority to solve the problem
signing a ‘pp’ on behalf of someone on a letter is also highly impersonal and makes the customer feel of little importance to the person in authority

benchmark and measure performance improvements in this process eg 95% of complaints resolved successfully within five days to track if you eliminating or exacerbating your customers’ complaints
The secretive: mystery shopping. The ‘mystery shopper’ poses as an ordinary customer – whether in person or by phone, and should evaluate the following core elements of your customer relations:

greetings used
product/service knowledge
the attitude of the staff
number of rings before phone answered

THE CASE OF VICTORIA WINE Victoria Wine has been using mystery shopping for several years to improve both customer service and their bottom line. Over 50 elements are assessed, including:

acknowledging the customer within 30 seconds
how customer questions are handled
Feedback given to each shop includes performance relative to previous assessments and to other branches; lessons learned are incorporated into company training programmes. Question: is this linked to their recent announcement to close all their shops and open up online only?

Now put yourself in their shoes – if you were a customer of your company, where would you be on the Richter scale of ‘really pleased’ to ‘raging’?