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The wellbeing of your business depends on the way your company interacts with its customers. This sounds obvious, but many companies—large and small, unknown and well-known—do not act that way.

Your customer-facing interactions can make or break your business

Make no mistake about it. Your customer-facing employees are your face to the customer. When they are eager to help, your business seems helpful. When they respond quickly, your company appears efficient. When they're knowledgeable and well-informed, your organization seems customer focused.

On the other hand, when your customer-facing personnel are surly, uninterested, or ignorant, your company seems unfriendly, arrogant, or out of touch.

Lost in the Translation

Most companies have a policy that puts the customer first, but too often that policy isn't implemented by the people on the front lines.

Why? Sometimes the company rewards behavior that is the exact opposite of what the organization preaches. For example, companies might compensate call center personnel on the number of calls handled per hour, while touting a policy of effectively solving tough customer issues.

In other cases, angry personnel might take out their aggressions on customers. Anyone who has flown a U.S.-based airline over the last few years has likely been subjected to surly flight attendants and ground personnel. As airlines continue to cut costs, the employees are displaying their frustration. These same airlines now charge for amenities (such as snacks) that used to be "free," and tell customers that flight attendants are there only for safety, not to provide customer service.

Sometimes policies don't filter down to the people who must implement them. A top business publication recently touted a large car rental company as a leader in customer service. In my experience, this company provides horrific customer support. At each potential opportunity, its employees handled my situation poorly, with little regard for me or the potential for future business from me. What happened? Most likely the customer service mantras espoused by this company's executives haven't been transferred to the people responsible for customer support on the day-to-day level.

The company prides itself on surveying a small sample of customers to confirm its superior service. However, more than 93% of customers are not surveyed. Many of these people are deeply dissatisfied, but the company focuses on its survey results and ignores unsolicited feedback from customers.

Businesses like Nordstrom's and the Ritz-Carlton have built reputations for great customer service. Even Starbucks empowers employees to hand out free-drink coupons to customers who have waited too long, received the wrong drink, or been otherwise inconvenienced. The company understands that a long-term relationship far outweighs the cost of a grande cappuccino.

Technology makes today's customer-facing situations much more critical. In the past, if I had a negative experience with a business, I might tell a few friends. Now, I can post comments on blogs, respond to others' blogs, or even create an "I Hate Company X" website. Every mistreated customer in 2006 is not just an unhappy customer, but a potential link to an entire community of people who may spread negative stories about you—whether the gripes are warranted or not.

What's a Company to Do?

What to do? It's simple. Make customer-facing interactions a priority:

  • Be clear on your customer-facing policies. Specify the values and standards that your staff is expected to maintain regarding customers and prospects.

  • Lead by example. Start with the top and model the behavior you'd like to see in all your employees throughout the organization.

  • Like the old saying about voting in Chicago, communicate early and often, especially with those functions where employees may be lower paid and not highly educated, and have high turnover rates.

  • Treat employees as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Proactively defuse potentially hostile situations so that employees won't have an ax to grind.

  • Reward proper behavior quickly and publicly. Make sure compensation, rewards, and disciplinary programs enforce the correct behavior.

  • Customers might also interact with your consultants, contractors, and partners. Make sure these people clearly understand how you expect them to represent you with external audiences, especially your customers and prospects.

  • Use technology to communicate, invite feedback, track progress, manage results, and showcase results.

More Than One Way to Face Customers

Today's customers also interact with corporate Web sites, interactive voice response (IVR) systems and email systems, as well as human beings. Make sure your customer-facing program focuses on these areas:

  • Review your websites, email response templates, and voicemail messages on a regular basis from the point of view of your customers. How easy is it to do both typical and atypical tasks? How difficult is it to reach you when there's a problem? Is it easy to find contact information on your Web site or to get to a live person through your IVR?

  • Run usability tests with actual customers or prospects. Watch what works and what doesn't. Learn from the unexpected things that people try to do with your Web site or the unthought-of issues people run into when dealing with your IVR system. Adjust to your audience—don't expect them to adjust to you.

  • Run your customer-support operations at your customer's convenience, not yours. Since call centers can now be staffed almost anywhere in the world, there's no reason to limit support hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. If your customers work nights and weekends, support them during those times. They'll thank you for it.

  • Offer opportunities for customers to tell you how they feel. Listen to them and acknowledge their input. When you hear a consistent message, take this as a warning sign to make changes—now.

Remember that customers have long memories. They'll remember when they feel mistreated, and they will also remember when you go "above and beyond" taking care of them. Your mission is to turn the customer-facing challenge into an opportunity to build relationships and improve customer loyalty, increasing business and profitability in the long run.

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image of Linda Popky

Linda J. Popky is principal at Leverage2Market Associates. A strategic marketing expert, she is the author of the new book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage With Marketing That Matters.

LinkedIn: Linda Popky

Twitter: @popky