The customer may always be right, but that doesn't mean he can avoid long lines, rudeness, neglect and voice mail that leads him on a trail to nowhere.
Despite the old adages and the new buzzwords, customer service is not always alive and well in the United States. But according to "customer retention" expert Laura Liswood, businesses can no longer be so blase about their clientele.This isn't the 1980s anymore, when it seemed there were a limitless number of customers. This is the 1990s, Liswood reminds us, when there are 250 million people in the United States and enough department stores for 500 million.
Not only are there a finite number of customers, she says, but it costs a lot more to get new customers than to keep old ones. Businesses, she says, are sort of like marriages: More attention needs to be paid to the long-term relationship and less to the wooing.
Liswood will be in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Sept. 16, to give the keynote address at "Customer Service and Utah," an all-day seminar presented by Salt Lake Community College.
The Japanese do customer service much better than Americans do, says Liswood. "They think of lifetime customers. We view it one sale at a time."
Although there are countless ways for a business to ignore or alienate a customer, the biggest blunders, she says, include:
- Having no mechanism for customers to easily and quickly make complaints.
- Having no mechanism to easily and quickly address those complaints.
- Looking at each complaint separately instead of seeing what major changes need to be made in the company.
- Forgetting to reward long-term customers. Sometimes, in fact, the long-term customer is ignored in favor of the new one. For example, new magazine subscribers often get cheaper rates than long-time subscribers do. There are many ways to reward customers, says Liswood. "Thank-yous would be nice."
Mostly what customers want is to know that even when there are problems - "as there are in any relationship" - the business can be trusted to listen and respond.
Liswood, now a consultant on customer retention strategies, has also worked on the front line, as director of marketing and customer service for Rainier National Bank in Washington state and as district manager for Group W Cable.
A lawyer and an MBA graduate from Harvard, she was the former owner and publisher of Seattle Women magazine. She has also been a member of the board of directors of The First Women's Bank of California.
"Most businesses don't look at things through customers' eyes," says Liswood. Management should spend time doing what customers do, and that includes calling the company's number and getting lost in phone mail.