July/August 2012
Executive Corner

Good service goes beyond tech support

By Tim Hohmann

We all know it costs far more to attract new customers than to keep current ones, but it often seems that providing good service to existing customers is a lost art. Offering good quality products is important, but even the best products will not keep customers happy if they do not receive prompt and high-quality service for what they perceive to be a fair price.

Good customer service must go beyond answering questions via some means of tech support, either in person or online, and include helping users maximize the benefits from the products they buy.

Excellent service starts with having a human answer support calls instead of forcing a customer to navigate his or her way through a phone maze. Ideally, each call to technical support should be answered by a person on the technical support team, or at least by someone who is knowledgeable enough to immediately direct the caller to the correct person. When customers have an issue serious enough to prompt them to pick up the phone, they need to talk to someone who can help them immediately.

Make the tech support phone number available in a variety of forms, from easy-to-find postings on numerous web pages to packaging inserts. This reduces the anxiety customers have when they need help and often expedites resolution of issues.

While many customers prefer support via phone, others prefer obtaining the information they need online. In addition, some issues are best resolved online, such as, for example, those that require posting of specific technical information like specifications or lines of programming code.

Online support should also include customer forums where users can share success stories and solve problems. Vendors should provide a substantial amount of "real estate" on their website dedicated to technical support topics. A well-organized site will include links to training, online manuals, guided tutorials, AutoCAD template drawings, product cross references, software tools and updates, and other topics.

One of the features customers have told us they particularly like is the Customer Forum, as it provides a means for them to share information, ideas, and tips. While we occasionally have AutomationDirect staff monitor this site, it is meant for users to freely interact with each other in an uncensored fashion. No one likes to see negative feedback posted online, but we view it as constructive criticism that helps us become a better company. It is also valuable to have newsletters, a quarterly hard-copy magazine, sharing of success stories in these publications, and information about new products and trends.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects to providing good customer service is ensuring that employees feel invested in their jobs and are part of a corporate team. There is so much focus on the bottom line that it is easy to forget that a company's strength comes from its team members. We put a lot of emphasis on treating our employees well, as we believe they will then treat our customers in the same manner. Treating employees right requires more than hosting a once-a-year employee team-building exercise. Companies must also strive each day to reward and encourage team members to reach their highest potential. When employees love what they do and where they work, they will reflect that attitude of respect and care to customers. They will not view customer calls as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to help.

Providing free, top-notch customer service is also good for the bottom line. It is more cost-effective to retain existing customers than be continually bringing in new customers to replace those who fall away. Companies should not get carried away with the bottom line when it comes to service, as it is more important to provide high-quality service than to fixate on efficiency. In the worst case, a company will try to turn service into a high-margin profit center, relentlessly driving down costs by outsourcing support, and pursuing ever higher revenues through "premium" support contracts.

A better approach is to make it easy for customers to achieve the maximum benefits from the products they purchase by being able to easily reach a human technical support team member, by providing forums for them to talk to other users, and/or by downloading free tutorials-all at low or no cost. By offering a variety of customer service tools, businesses may find they are not just maintaining customer relationships, but also strengthening them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Hohmann (marketing@automationdirect.com) is founder and president of AutomationDirect.com, Inc., originally PLCDirect, since January 1994.