Customer service is a circular process that relies on constant feedback and communication between all parties, says Sarah Spivey, managing director at Modulift.
The onus is, perhaps understandably, placed upon the service or product provider to deliver the best customer experience. The metric by which to measure a company's success to that end is its ability to meet or exceed a client's expectations. Thus, the consumer or recipient has an important role to play in completion of the process. However, customer feedback is all too commonly overlooked and, in some cases, reluctantly given.
We've all seen a person complaining about something but when they're invited to put those comments on record or follow up with an email, they refuse.
I think the supplier-customer relationship is misinterpreted as a straight line, with the supplier hammering away at their tools at one end, and the customer putting the products to work way down the other, almost out of sight. Instead, I think of it like a circle. One party helps the next to achieve their goals and a relationship develops whereby manufacturers or suppliers understand what is expected of them and clients readily offer information and feedback to ensure their expectations are being met.
A complete circle is harder to penetrate by competitors because everyone involved feels a sense of loyalty to the process. Circle or not, this isn't about reinventing the wheel—suppliers need customers to tell them what's cool and what's not. It sounds obvious but industry and business must continue to revisit this basic science.
Take two recent personal experiences that demonstrate my point:
My first example is from the airline industry:
I've always remained a loyal customer to one airline. It's not a secret who they are but nor does it really enhance my point so I'll leave out their name. Work it out, if you wish. This particular airline has a great London terminal, serves most of the cities I frequent, and operates a pretty decent loyalty programme. I despise connecting flights or layovers so my choice airline scores points for flying direct to most places.
Further, the aforementioned points scheme grants me access to airport lounges where I can escape the hullabaloo of main terminals and catch up on my emails, perhaps with a glass of something cold and a bite to eat. On a good day, staff enquire after my welfare and will even escort me to my flight so I don't have to anxiously monitor the boarding screen and calculate how long it might take me to walk to the gate. It should be a love match between supplier and customer made it heaven. But there are a couple of disconnects, or breaks in the circle.
Repeatedly in recent years, I've got to the cabin of the plane and the service unravels (mistake one). The onboard team are altogether less interested; the quality of hospitality plummets, like a plane navigating turbulent skies; and I no longer feel as valued as I did in the terminal building. I understand looking after hundreds of people in a tube in the sky is difficult, but at the very least it helps if the cabin crew embrace that challenge. They should be demanding of themselves: despite the enormity of the task ahead, let's make this flight as enjoyable as possible for our paying customers. When we land, let's ask our passengers what they thought so we can do even better next time.
This particular airline doesn't rush to ask for feedback (mistake two) and when it is given, I don't detect that it's taken on board, literally (mistake three). Expectations have to be reasonable and a passenger's safety is paramount—nobody should get a hot cup of tea during takeoff while they're standing up to rummage through the overhead lockers—but a supplier must show a bias to act. In other words, where the problem is small and fixable, deal with it; don't let it continue and snowball to the point that it becomes a hallmark of the service offering that people just contend with.
Why become the village pub that everyone calls breezy because the owners refuse to make a cheap repair to a broken window? Fix it and light a roaring fire.
For me, enough was enough. The disgruntled, undervalued customer that I had become took my business elsewhere. On a recent trip to Australia (more on the reasons for the trip in due course) I realised I couldn't avoid stopping en route so one of my airline's USPs was no longer applicable. I looked at alternative options and I was overwhelmed by the customer experience from check-in right through to disembarking down under. So impressive was the service that I will now look for this airline when making my next booking.
My second example is from the banking sector:
An upcoming project requires a level of finance so we've been in dialogue with our current bank and two others. Interestingly, we've been given a completely different customer experience from all three. One has been excellent, one mediocre, and another deplorable. Given the theme of this blog, you may guess which one has given us the worst experience. Yes, the bank that we have given loyal custom to for over a decade. Despite knowing our operation inside out, they have made the process almost obstructively difficult. They're akin to my previously favoured airline.
We approached the other two banks via recommendations. One has been too gung-ho in competing for our business and the final option has actually been the best. Instead of taking our custom for granted, or claiming to be the best bankers in the world, they have started a two-way relationship. Our point of contact has asked us questions, taken an interest in what we do, and outlined options without obligation. They've prioritised the formation of a partnership and put the possibility that we might one day do business together in the background.
You've guessed it; we're now considering whether we should move all of our business to a new banking provider. Knee-jerk reactions are ill advised in the work environment and I'm not suggesting everyone jumps ship (or plane) at the first sign of trouble; that's not how loyalty works. But when a relationship becomes one-sided or a customer's appeals are being ignored, it might be time to look at other options.
It's not always going to be down to shortcomings or bad customer service directly, just that the fit might not be right. Perhaps our bank would be better equipped to deal with a different type of business and maybe the new supplier with which we're discussing the finance package is the perfect fit for a company of our type, size, and growth status.
A closed plane curve
Readers of this blog might have their own customer service experiences that they can apply to the supply chains of their business. It's not really important whether an airline or bank prompts a company to look again these processes. The crucial takeaway is that without a complete circle of dialogue within which all parties understand each other, things can breakdown. It doesn't matter how long the partnership is or how unlikely it seems that a customer is considering alternative options. In fact, that's possibly where to look first.
I know that Sue Spencer, our technical director, will be mindful of the importance of two-way relationships when she debuts at the 23rd International Offshore Crane & Lifting Conference in Aberdeen next month. Malcolm Peacock, our international business development manager, will be equally conscious of it at this week's Oil & Gas West Asia event in Oman, while it'll be etched on my mind when I'm representing the company at Vertikal Days here in the UK later in the spring. Customers are never 'in the bag' and no trade show mission statement should ever be exclusively focussed on new business.
In conclusion, tell your suppliers how they're getting on and ask those you sell to for feedback. When you get it, act upon the information or at least explain to the client why it's not possible to fix their issue.
Thank you for reading. If you celebrate it—Happy Easter!