customer serviceMaking sure your customers are happy is, to me, a key element of growing a successful business. It amazes me how much time and effort some businesses put into finding new customers only to lose those customers quickly through poor service.

That is as true of corporate businesses as small businesses. Many corporate businesses seem to think of customer service as a cost, rather than as an opportunity for investment.

If you look at mature marketplaces where there are a few large players, competition between those businesses can lead to the service or produce becoming more and more of a commodity. You end up with two or three businesses competing in a saturated market. The mobile carrier market is a good example. Everyone has a mobile phone so there is no need to sell based on benefit. You don’t need to sell the idea of owning a mobile phone, so you mention the features such as rewards, functionality, tie-ups … but rarely customer service.

But what is really scary is that the businesses engineer customer service out of their processes.

My impression of going into a Vodaphone or O2 shop is of going into a soulless and clinical showroom, walls full of the latest phones. The sales staff are only able to sell you phones or change your tariff.

On the O2 website, there are very few options for customer service. It is mostly “self-help”. You, the customer, have to sort your own problems out. When you do call them, you are faced with “IVR menu hell” … “are you pay-as-you-go or monthly plan”, “please enter your phone number”, “please choose option 3 for …”. They have designed customer dis-service systems.

THEY DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO YOU. They have lots of customers, it is expensive to staff call centres serving customer enquiries, they are trying to maximise profits through reducing costs.

While I may not be able to change their behaviour, I can point out some salutary lessons.

1. If your customer gets in contact with you, it is an opportunity to develop your relationship with that customer. It is an opportunity to develop brand loyalty by blowing their socks off with your customer service.

2. If your customer gets in touch with you, it is a chance to sell other services. Banks are particularly good at this cross-selling.

3. Focussing on the excellence of your customer service helps you stand out from the crowd. Over the past few years, NatWest has made a concerted attempt to draw new customers through their customer service, repairing their brand and making them stand out.

In “corporate world”, you may have the luxury of engineering customer service out of your systems, however, we small businesses don’t. Each customer contact is a vital opportunity: you can screw it up and lose a customer or do it right and develop real loyalty.