Great Expectations

Jun 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

Most customers know what they want-a good product at a good price, with good service thrown in. And as we head into the 21st century, customers will become more insistent on receiving what they want, since they’ll have a lot more choices-retail stores, outlet malls, ever-increasing numbers of Websites, and of course, catalogs.

Because of this increased competition, service and convenience will count more than ever in the next century. If you can’t deliver them, your customers will find someone else that can.

Secrets for service success “I don’t have to worry about customer service in the next century,” you might be thinking. “My service is already topflight.” Maybe it is-by today’s standards. But what will customer expectations be in 2001?

l HURRY UP By 2001, diehard catalog buyers might put some of the companies from which they order on their speed dial to save time. Of course, these customers will then expect to get through every time, right away. The point of shopping direct is to get in and get out, so to speak, so catalogers need to ensure that they have enough phone lines and enough telephone service reps (TSRs) to handle expected call demand.

l USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY Many callers hate talking to an answering machine today, and many will still hate talking to machines in 2001. But the good news is that more customers will be used to machines, and that recording systems will become easier and faster to use. Most customers won’t mind using a phone system if it can get them to the correct department or provide the needed information quickly. But your system should make clear what callers need to do to get what they want. Have friends and family “test” your phone system’s voice prompts from time to time to ensure that the instructions can’t lead to confusion.

Not that machines will ever replace manpower in customer service-there’s no substitute for a considerate, credible, competent telephone service rep, whether the customer is a straightforward Yankee, a hurried New Yorker, a laid-back Californian, a genteel Southerner, or as may more often be the case in the next century, someone whose native language isn’t English.

l DELIVER THE GOODS Send merchandise when you say you will, and make sure it arrives on schedule. If there’s a problem, don’t wait for the customer to call you, as you might do currently. Instead have your reps contact the customer-it’ll boost the chances that the next time the customer does call you, it will be to place another order.

Customers in the 21st century are no more likely to embrace backorders than are today’s buyers. But since it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to eliminate backorders altogether, we’ll need to be able to resolve the problems much faster than we do now. Your phone reps should be able to tell customers exactly when they can expect any backordered items and be able to suggest a good substitute if the items can’t get there on time. No doubt by 2001 you’ll have a Website, so you might consider posting inventory information on it, allowing customers to check product availability for themselves.

l ELIMINATE HASSLES Consider sending a prepaid return label with orders, so that customers can just drop off returns at the post office or a local UPS outlet. You might also consider making your shipping and handling charges more realistic-the demanding customers of the 21st century will pay attention to them, even more than do today’s customers. Instead of having shipping and handling fees escalate with order size, why not decrease the percentage of shipping and handling as the order size increases-for instance, charge 10% S&H for orders under $50 but 5% S&H for orders $50 and up. This may persuade buyers to bulk up their orders to get the better rate.

l EDUCATE YOUR BUYERS Customers have become increasingly concerned about privacy-a trend that shows no signs of ebbing. So make sure they can always find out how you obtained their name or to whom you might be renting it. Include in your catalog and on your Website a description of your list rental and exchange policies. And any time a customer asks to be taken off your list, do it immediately. If these service standards sound too difficult or expensive to implement, keep in mind that the alternative may prove even more costly in the long run. What we now consider “high” service standards are going to be the norm as increased competition forces marketers to top one another every way they can.

Getting there If you want to compete on service, you’ll obviously have to hire good people and train them to truly help customers instead of just taking orders. That means giving reps access to all the products and product information-what the items are made of, how to use and take care of them-so that they can answer customer questions. Also, train your reps on the Internet; let them practice ordering from your Website and show them what it’s like to surf the Web so that they’ll understand the queries and concerns of your online customers.

Because the 21st-century customer is going to value his or her time as much as, if not more than, the customer of today, grant your reps a certain degree of authority-and let them know in advance how much authority they have. You don’t want reps putting a buyer on hold to ask their supervisor if it’s okay to bend a certain rule. Give reps the leeway to set wrongs right, whether it’s sending a disgruntled customer a new item, refunding the customer’s shipping charges, or just giving him or her a little “feel better about this” discount.

It’s almost impossible to predict the job market in 2001, but expect it to be even harder to find good help than today. That means you’ll want to retain and promote your best workers. Establish a career path for operations personnel to learn more about the company and work toward different jobs. Create opportunities for reps to move into other parts of operations or even into merchandising, catalog production, or MIS if they have the required skills and knowledge. And offer health benefits and 401(k)s even to part-timers to let reps know that you want them to stay and grow with you.

For years, we’ve thought of the 21st century as a faraway time in which anything would be possible. But 2001 is only two and a half years away. That’s just enough time to make the improvements necessary to compete in what promises to be an increasingly turbulent marketplace.