Customer service is king for awning companies
Strategic service makes your company memorable
by Randy Westlund, Founder & CEO
We live in a constantly connected culture of instant gratification. We want what we want and we want it right now—with no delays. Between instant messaging, next-day delivery and online services available 24/7, the marketplace is catering to these demands.
Some revealing statistics show how much people have changed. If it takes a website five seconds to load instead of just one second, there's a 90 percent increase in the bounce rate (the probability that the person will give up and abandon the website). Forty percent of people abandon websites that take more than three seconds to load. Think about these people in the context of your business: These are the same people calling you about a possible job and being put on hold. Are these really people you want to put on hold?
Another example: Think of how many companies have no-questions-asked return policies today. It would be faster to list the few that don't. This was not the case a decade or two ago. This kind of white-glove customer service is no longer optional—it's the baseline expectation in the market. When your customers give you a call or walk in the door, that's the level of service they expect from you.
How do you stack up? If you're like most of us in this industry, the answer could be: “not great.” You probably have 40 feet of filing cabinets with paper records of every job from the past 25 years. Many are probably misfiled, never to be found again. When a customer calls to ask if you're the company who did that job for him several years ago, you have no idea without spending at least 30 minutes searching for the old paperwork. And when another customer calls to ask about the status of her job, the best you can do is promise to call her back later that day, after you've checked in with half a dozen employees.
There's definite room for improvement. What can you do to provide better customer service? There are a number of vital strategies.
On the phone
Phone calls are critical to business—acquiring customers, keeping them updated and following up on job performance. Whoever answers the phone should be equipped for each job. Keep digital records of your customer history so you can pull up or create the customer's account while you're on the phone. You should always know whether you've talked to this person before, the status of any current jobs, and which jobs you've done for this customer in the past.
As mentioned earlier, people are impatient. Never put customers on hold for more than 90 seconds. If it'll be longer than that, call them back (or at least give them the option). This shows that you respect other people's time. But this shouldn't happen often, because you should be able to answer almost any question right away.
Don't hang up without having a clear next step. If you need to schedule an appointment for the customer to talk with one of your sales reps, schedule it before you get off the phone. If you leave someone wondering if and when the rep will call back to schedule it, you might lose that customer to the next company that Google™ finds.
Consider taking messages by hand rather than sending people to voicemail. Talking to a human is a much nicer experience and shows customers that you still have time for them, even if the person they need is not available. It also gives you the opportunity to make sure the message is complete, with all the information you need.
Be extra polite. Smile while you're on the phone. The person on the other end will hear it in your voice. People are very sensitive to aggravation, and if you let that creep into your voice, that's the message the customer will receive.
Communicate with your customers every week to provide a quick update. It may be just another job for you, but to the customer it's a big purchase that may seem to be taking forever. Tell the customer what stage of production it's in, the name of the employee working on it today, etc. This can be a phone call or email. You could even go as far as to send a photo of someone cutting the fabric or welding the frame—a sure way to stand out in a customer's mind.
Always follow up with a phone call after a job is complete to get the customer's honest feedback. Ask about both the product and the service. If something went wrong, you need to know about it so you can make it right, and make sure it doesn't happen again. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, so your customers may be hesitant to be honest about what happened. If you get a generic response like “Yeah, they were okay,” that tells you there's room for improvement. Push further by saying, “It sounds like our installers could have done better for you,” and see how the customer responds.
Service and appearances
Maintain unusually high standards for your installers. They're part of the public face of your company, and typically form the final impression you leave your customers with. Don't be afraid to fire employees who don't represent you well. It's better to be a person short than to pay someone who is damaging your reputation.
Require uniforms or a consistent dress code for all employees who interact with customers, including installers. Not only is this a quick way to add a sense of professionalism, but people also behave differently while in uniform. Embroidered polos are relatively cheap and still effective.Making things right
No matter how much effort you put into making things go well, mistakes will happen. You'll screw things up and look like idiots. How do you recover?
Accept that you're going to lose money (or at least your profit) on this particular job, and simply go into damage control mode. From that point on, your goal is to salvage the customer's opinion of you. As crazy as it sounds, these mistakes are actually opportunities: If you handle the situation well, the customer may end up respecting you more than if no mistake had been made.
Do whatever it takes (within reason) to make the customer happy. That customer is going to talk to at least 10 other people about you, possibly hundreds or thousands if it's someone who posts a review online. How much is it worth to change 10 bad reviews into 10 good referrals?
After you resolve the immediate issue, consider offering a free product cleaning in one year. This response has three clear purposes:
- It gives the customer something of value that is unlikely to be rejected.
- It gives you another chance to leave a good final impression.
- It puts you in front of the customer again, where you may sell another product or service down the line.
Compete on service
Many products are increasingly becoming commodities, which means consumers won't be able to distinguish your products from those of your competitors—it will be all the same to them. Think about products like eggs and milk. There is often no meaningful difference between brands, so companies selling these products can only compete on price.
In our industry, however, customer service will always be a primary differentiator, followed by price. Think of your reputation as your company's most valuable asset, especially in online reviews. It's vitally important that you get your customers to leave online reviews. You should email customers a link to a place where they can leave a review, such as Yelp, Google Reviews or maybe a WordPress plugin on your website. Give them an incentive, like $25 off if they promise to leave an honest online review after the job, regardless of what they say. Many will follow through if you remind them and make it easy. It will take time and effort to build up that online reputation, but it can be the one thing you have that your competitors don't.
Go the extra mile and give customer service that personal touch that's increasingly rare in today's markets. Your customers will appreciate it and respond to it, even if you're a little more expensive.
This article originally appeared in Specialty Fabrics Review, November 1, 2019.