This piece was initially published in BusinessDNA.
Why Customer Service Even Matters?
Customer service is important because unhappy customers can fire us from our own businesses anytime by taking their purchases to our competitors. True and serious business people understand how quickly losing customers can reduce their revenue and profitability. We are in business, especially in the service industry – constituting 56% of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2017 – because customers buy our products. Our businesses depend on repeat purchases of our customers. As Professor and author of Out of the Crisis writes, “profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that bring friends with them.” It's common knowledge that it’s many times less costly to sell to existing customers than it is to new ones.
What can we do to fix customer service in Afghanistan? Here are a number of key steps for you to consider:
Acknowledge the Bad Customer Service
I was chatting with the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company that has thousands of employees and I asked, “Are you happy from your officers’ customer service to your clients?” He said, “Of course! We provide the best customer service in the country. All I hear is positive feedback.” I knew the company’s customer service was poor, but I just wanted to see what the CEO thinks. The very first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists. Every company has room for improvement as there’s no such thing as a perfect customer service. We should observe our employees’ interactions with customers, ask customers for feedback, and objectively review our customers’ feedback. If we’re really honest with ourselves, our illusion of being the best in Afghanistan will burst in no time.
Fix Your Products & Processes
Think about the 3P’s of a company: people, products, and processes. Even the top customer service experts in the world cannot keep your customers happy if your products and processes are poor. You have to get all three P’s right. Will a customer be happy if we sell them rotten eggs or expired milk or broken electronics? Impossible! When you think about keeping customers happy – thus the prospect of your company’s success - it’s mandatory to make sure your products and processes are designed in such a way that best serve the customer and provide the value they come to you for. Values-based customer service focuses on maximizing the value – service, product, attention, utility – that customers get from your business. A few questions to think about are:
• How well our products or services fit with the needs of our customers?
• What parts of our products or services need improvement?
• What do our customers say about our products or services?
• How easy is it for our customers to buy our products or services?
• Have we minimized the time and cost it takes our customers to purchase, receive, and consume our products or services?
• How simple and streamlined is our customer service process?
Once we audit and fix our products and processes, we can now focus on the 3rd P of our companies: people.
Recruit the Right People
It goes without saying that the success of our businesses depends on the knowledge, attitudes, and skills of our teams. A common trap among Afghan businesses is our tendency to recruit our family members, relatives and friends. This is very dangerous when our recruitment is not merit-based. Can we fire our family member from our business without affecting our personal relationships? Not really.
The real problem arises when the family member is incompetent and does not serve our business and customers well, in which case we put ourselves in a position to choose between the business and the personal relationship. The rule of thumb is to hire merit-based and put our best employees in the front to deal with our customers.
To build an excellent customer service team, consider two additional points:
• Assign roles based on employees’ natural talents & abilities. An outgoing, fun, kind, and extrovert employee – a people’s person – is best suited to serve as a customer relationship manager.
•Value diversity – i.e. a gender- balanced customer service team is more likely to handle customers more effectively. An angry and unhappy male customer is less likely to behave aggressively with a female customer service officer; there’s that respect for women. On the contrary, given our big egos, a male customer service officer will likely get into a heated discussion with a male customer. Diversity helps.
Invest in Training & Coaching
Investing in customer service training has only recently been acknowledged as an unavoidable need. It takes time, resources, patience, and commitment to learn the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will equip us to get better at customer service. The quality of training is often overlooked. A bunch of PowerPoint slides & hours of lecturing by a non-practitioner who has barely dealt with customers cannot be effective. Learning to deal with customers requires a practical, hands-on, and case-based training that balances between the three key elements of the Triangle of Success: attitude, skills, and knowledge. When you invest on training, make sure:
• It’s designed to build skills, change attitudes – i.e. tame our big egos – and enhance our knowledge
• It is practice-based and puts the employees out of their comfort zone so they actually see themselves serving customers. For example, in our training programs, we ask every employee to repeatedly say sorry so it becomes second nature.
• It’s long-term and employees have the opportunity to refresh their learning. In fact, our organizations should be a place for learning and development for everyone.
• Trainers serve as facilitators, not as old-school lecturers, so that the learning is interactive and employees discover, demonstrate, practice, and internalize improved skills and attitudes.
It’s rare to see employees receiving coaching from a qualified mentor. Coaching and mentorship are the building blocks of successful professionals in business. Customer service improves over time and highly depends on human skills. For employees to assess, identify, and invest on their strengths and weaknesses, coaching and mentorship is a must. You may choose to recruit external mentors and make it mandatory for employees to receive counseling sessions every few months if not more often.
Build a Customer-centric Organizational Culture
On a cold night of December 2009, at around 12:30 midnight, the support team of an Internet service provider (ISP) company receives a call from a client that their Internet is down and that the customer has a guest from the US who is keen to watch a movie on Netflix. The client begs, “can you please do something to fix our Internet? I know it’s late at night.” The customer support officer says, “no problem sir. I will fix it for you. What’s your address?” The officer calls for a car and goes to the client’s home in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold winter of Kabul. He fixes the issue, checks to make sure the Internet is working, and heads back home. The client is using the ISP’s services till day, now a 10-year loyal customer. I recently asked the COO of the company as to how do they manage such a high level of customer retention. He said, “All we care about is our customers. At times, I myself as the COO of the company visit customers to fix their issues and ensure they know we care. We require every employee to complete a certification program that equips them to best serve our clients.” The ISP has a customer-centric organizational culture. We thrive when our organizational culture nourishes collaboration, problem solving attitude, respect for customers, mutual trust, and a firm belief in collective growth. We should instill these in everyone working in our companies. Satisfied and empowered employees transfer their happiness and satisfaction to customers, and our employees’ happiness depends on our work environment, organizational culture, incentive systems, and leadership. As the saying goes, “happy employees, happy customers.” The more we take care of our employees, the happier they will be. You might have noticed that Afghan professionals never go on vacation or take days off to unwire and rejuvenate themselves. This never- ending cycle of constant work makes employees unmotivated to serve our organizations and customers. We should make vacations mandatory. It’s a matter of business success.
Above all, customer service excellence results from our ability to interact with people with passion, care, and empathy – human skills – that we can only learn over time. Improving our customer service isn’t a choice anymore. As our economy becomes more competitive, bad customer service will become a comparative disadvantage that may cost us our businesses.
The brief menu of steps in this article will only help you begin the journey. There’s so much more to consider that goes beyond the limit of this article. The following provides a summary of the ways you can think about to fix customer services in your company.