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Specialists on the Front Lines

of the

Customer Relationship

 

Specialists find themselves on the front lines of major customer issues.  The salesperson is still involved and customer service handles the routine stuff.  But for some reason, when customers experience production stops and work stoppages, the Specialist is there.  Missed delivery dates, product quality problems, start-up difficulties and un-negotiated disputes land like steaming hot potatoes in the Specialist’s lap.  Many consider this to be a bad thing – and it certainly is a new source of stress.  But, like the proverbial silver lining in the dark cloud, this provides us with an exciting new opportunity.  New research proves what many suspected for years.  Handling customers the right way during times of turmoil actually builds loyalty. 

 

Research outlined in the new book Human Sigma details two categories of satisfied customer – the rationally satisfied and the emotionally satisfied.  Rationally satisfied customers are those who appreciate your company for all the good things you do.  Simply put, they cognitively understand your value and know how to put it to work for them.  But emotionally satisfied customers are different.  Not only do they understand your value, additionally they feel an emotional attachment to your company.

 

Rationally satisfied customers are only are only slightly more loyal to your company than unsatisfied customers.  They know you provide strong value.  They rate themselves as extremely satisfied.  Yet, they are just as likely to drift to a competitor as someone who is not satisfied with your service. 

 

Emotionally satisfied customers are different.  Their emotional link to you and your company make them nearly competition proof.  And here is the surprising point – emotionally satisfied customers often get that way based on experiencing problems.  That’s right problems!  More specifically, they become emotionally attached because you demonstrated important traits while handling the problem.  Authors John Fleming and Jim Asplund describe a six step process for handling customer complications. 

 

Acknowledge

Confirm the problem.  To often Specialists are prone to subconsciously challenge the problem with questions.  Instead, let the customer know you understand they have a problem.  One of the best ways of accomplishing this comes via restating the problem in your own words.  A good statement might be, “To make sure I understand the situation, the light levels aren’t adequate in the corners of the work areas and this creates issues with the small parts.  I see how this would be a headache for you.”

 

This lets the customer know that you understand the difficulty from their point of view and allows you to frame the issue from their point of view.

 

Apologize

You should apologize for the inconvenience.  Even if the problem appears to be self inflicted, caused by your manufacturer, or someone else involved, you must take on the responsibility of saying, “I am sorry for your heartburn.”  Apologize personally and on behalf of your company – it strengthens your tie to the customer.

 

Many Specialists are reluctant to apologize because they fear the act of apology will reflect poorly on them.  The apology does not equate with acceptance of blame nor does it reflect on your company in a legal way.  Instead it lets the customer know you feel for their trouble and you are accepting a portion of their misery.  The apology diffuses the customer’s ire and builds a bond between Specialist and customer.

 

To illustrate how this works, we can look at a program implemented by the University of Michigan Health System’s Hospitals.  Since 2002 doctors have been trained to apologize for mistakes.  The system’s attorney fees have since dropped from $3 Million to $1 Million per year.  Notices of intent to sue fell from 262 to 130 per year.  Nobody wants to sue a doctor that is genuinely sorry for making a mistake.  Instead they sue because the doctor didn’t care enough to apologize.

 

By offering up an apology, you are in essence acknowledging to the customer that his/her trust in your organization is justified. 

 

Take Ownership

Take ownership of the problem by telling the customer you personally will get involved.  When you accept responsibility, you lift the emotional burden from the customer and move it to your shoulders.    

 

Never make the customer come to you to get status reports.  Instead, set detailed time lines for reporting back to the customer – even if you still have not found a solution.  Progress reports send the message that you care.

 

A Specialist might respond with a message like this one. “I will make a couple of phone calls to the manufacturer on my way to my next appointment.  Can I phone you back around 2:30 this afternoon with my status?”  The message to the customer becomes clear.  They now have you working in their best interest.

 

Handle on the Spot

Many of the problems Specialists handle can be dealt with immediately.  “I will send that missing catalog number out tomorrow on a no charge ticket” soothes customer emotions.  Statements like, “I will need to talk to our branch manager before I make a commitment to help” frustrates and further angers those involved. 

 

As a Specialist, you were hired for your professional judgment - not your devilishly good looks.  If the problem can be resolved for a few dollars, get it taken care of now.  When you are in doubt; make the error on the side of the customer.   If you truly don’t understand the boundaries of your decision making limits, I suggest you clarify the points with your manager as soon as possible.

 

Quickly Escalate

If you find you cannot handle the issues for the customer, quickly move them up stream to your manager, a manufacturer or someone else.  But this isn’t enough; you need to gently manage the hand-off with the customer.  Shuffling customers from department to department is a legendary mistake in building customer relationships.  It even has a name – the run around.

 

If you find you are not able to handle the issue, I suggest a phone call or meeting to explain why you cannot and how you intend to escalate them to someone else.  Most phones have the ability to do three-way conference calling.  A conference call with the person up the chain makes great sense.  It insures contact is made, it allows you to define who will handle things from this point on.  You definitely can not afford a dropped ball.  Leave nothing to chance. 

 

A word of caution to Specialists: if you must escalate the issue up stream to someone in a manufacturer’s organization stay in the loop as a customer advocate.  If your manufacturer handles the problem poorly it will roll back to affect you.   

 

Leave the customer better off than before

After the problem is resolved the customer should feel as though they came out of the process with greater than normal value.  This provides a strong psychological impression that you took their problem seriously and you will again if another problem happens in the future.  Giving away just a little today drives customer loyalty for a very long time. 

 

Conclusions

To error is human, to correct the error quickly is great business strategy.  Often Specialists aren’t the first point of contact with customers.  Instead calls are routed to customer service representatives and salespeople first.  It’s not uncommon for the first level of support to have handled the situation poorly – leading to extremely tense customer situations.  Have no fear; the six step process still works. 

 

Customer retention is important to building your business.  Turning common place issues into opportunities to reinforce your commitment to the customer is a corner stone of customer retention.

 

 

Frank Hurtte’s new book - The Distributor Specialist: A Sales Process for Changing Times will soon be available from the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence.

 

 

 

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