I recently had the daunting experience of calling my cellular telephone provider to upgrade my phone service.
As anyone who has called a large corporation in the past five years or so can tell you, it was an arduous task.
Just trying to choose the right option from the company's lengthy, and at times, baffling touch-tone menu to talk with a live person was a challenge to say the least.
Needless to say, four telephone numbers, three departments and six disinterested and/or helpless representatives later, on my seventh call, I finally reached someone who was not only pleasant and knowledgeable but he was so happy to help me with what I needed that we laughed and joked throughout most of the transaction.
By the end of the conversation, I had not only upgraded my telephone service, I had purchased a second cellular phone, a hands-free headset and a protective carrying case.
Embracing the opportunity to interact with customers, instead of hoping they'll get lost or just give up in the maze of a cleverly-crafted touch-tone menu, is the single best way to show your customers you value their time, their needs and their business.
Regardless of the product or service you sell we are all, ultimately, in the people business.
As in any relationship, if a company is willing to talk with its customers and interact with them effectively, customer problems and complaints can be minimized and even eliminated in most cases.
When customer needs are met, as in the story I just relayed, the possibility for future business is limitless.
As most of us know, a key influence on customers' expectations is price.
Customers commonly believe that the more they pay for a product or service, the better that product or service should be.
Interestingly enough, however, they do not believe that a low price is a legitimate excuse for poor service and that should serve as a caution to those who deal with customers either before or after the purchase.
There is simply no excuse for providing poor customer service.
Whether you're selling fine luxury automobiles or toothbrushes, customers are looking to have their needs met, questions answered and concerns legitimized regardless of the market value of the product or service they're purchasing.
Customers want to be respected. If you want them to be repeat customers, respect, then, is what you must deliver.
There are other expectations that customers also have of your company.
Firstly, customers expect your firm to be reliable.
Will you be there for service, questions and concerns after the purchase?
Will you be as attentive to their needs after their purchase as you were before it?
If problems occur down the line or the item needs repair, will your company gloss over the work or will it do a thorough job of fixing the item the first time?
As I have said in past articles, firms must do more than meet customer expectations -- to keep their customers happy, they must strive to exceed them.
Doing so enhances the quality of their image and savvy companies know that they should do everything they can to capitalize on that good image.
The best way to build that positive image is to be perceived by customers as reliable.
It is not enough to simply provide a product or service in the marketplace today. Companies these days must be reliable simply in order to compete.
It's possible that your advertising people may be geniuses at creating attention-getting, response-provoking ads that send customers clamoring to your door but what do you have to offer them that is tangible once they get there?
If your advertising proclaims that your product is the best on the market and that service is your No. 1 priority, you'd certainly better deliver on that promise. Nothing will damage your relationships with your customers and your public image worse than finding out that neither claim is true.
Delivering on your promises, particularly those made in the arena of high-profile advertising, is essential in keeping your customers.
Responsiveness is also a significant customer expectation.
If your customers only hear back from you when they want to make a new purchase or upgrade, they will quickly begin to question your commitment to them and thus, their loyalty and trust will wane. Service, then, must be consistent regardless of the request.
When your customers experience a problem, they are looking for the same level of interest as when they bring you new business.
In reality, every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to cultivate new business. Not responding to problems promptly can compromise or even forfeit a legitimate opportunity to retain a customer and even make a sale.
Customers are looking for empathy.
Even if your company is the only game in town, customers do not deserve to hear "no" just because they don't realistically have any alternatives. Telephone companies, for example, who once had eminent domain over certain geographical areas have learned the hard way that years of poor service meant they lost thousands of customers once their areas were opened by law to competitors.
It's a mistake to assume that you don't have to care about your customers because they have no other choice. Someday they will have choices -- and they certainly won't choose you.
Lastly, in conjunction with serving customers with empathy is demonstrating an understanding of their need for security and assurance.
They want ongoing, personalized relationships with the same representatives -- people whose names they know, people who remember them. They want a partner -- someone who cares about them and who wants to provide them the best possible service regardless of the size of their purchase or frequency of business.
For many companies, this kind of attention to customer needs will require devoting far more time and effort than they are currently expending.
Understanding and thus meeting the needs of customers means that you walk them through the process or explain the procedure at their pace, carefully clarifying everything along the way so that they have a full understanding of all aspects of their purchase. Teaching customers more about the product or service, listening to their concerns, and being sensitive to their expectations and needs will help endear them to your firm -- and retain their future business.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.