This issue of Waypoints, I’m taking a much more personalized approach to my cover feature on customer service. Forget the unbiased third party voice, though I do have quotes to share from experts in the field. Let me tell you why I wanted to cover this topic and why I believe this topic is so critical for every sailing business – in fact most every business - to contemplate.
Today, our marine business climate is more cutthroat than it’s ever been. The effects of the recession have caused our collective inventory to become liquidated, repossessed, blown out and pulverized. Profits for many are slipping down the bilge, while some businesses have drowned in mounting debt and losses. With staff reductions to skeleton scale, it’s easy to focus our manpower solely on that omnipresent bottom-line, while forgetting the key to any and every sale: The Customer.
What are we doing right now to retain our existing customers and to continually build their loyalty and repeat business?
What are we doing right now to tap new customers and ultimately, gain marketshare?
In our fever-pitched quest for survival, have we reduced our customer care initiatives to the point that sluggish sales or near-death become a self fulfilling prophecy? While there are plenty of sailing companies with a proven history of solid customer service practices, the purpose of this article is to remind us of the importance of our existing customers, and to prompt us to think about how we can all improve our performance in this critical area.
It’s something to think about. And I’ve thought about it. A lot.
WHERE ARE OUR CUSTOMER SERVICE LEADERS?
As a student and active practitioner of social marketing, I posted an inquiry on numerous marine social sites more than a month ago, asking for leads about innovative and winning customer service strategies currently being employed in the marine niche. I received a scant few responses, but the one that stunned me most came from the highly respected, award-winning marine journalist and author Marlin Bree.
“As a boater who does my own work as well as a marine journalist and boating author of long standing, you'd think that I could come up with a bunch of marine companies that have that distinctive, to be longed-for, ‘cool and effective twist to their customer service’ efforts," wrote Bree. “But nada. There are some good, reliable outfits out there that get things done with a minimum of fuss, but I can't recommend anyone in particular to you to fit your category. Good luck with your story. Maybe the fact that there is this lack out there might be the very story you have at your fingertips, if you want to swing that way.”
So, yes – there are many “good, reliable outfits out there that get things done with a minimum of fuss,” as Bree notes, but I was looking for companies who had demonstrated the WOW factor. Due to the lackluster response to my broad, wide-sweeping inquiry, I chose to use this platform to return to the basics, while adding a mix of newer considerations that just about any company can implement at minimal cost. I’m sharing what I know and what I’ve learned from personal experience heading up marketing for a global organization for 11 years, through 14 years of owning a business of my own, and after extensive research on the subject.
This article is designed to remind you about opportunity. An opportunity that, if missed, may cause you to miss the boat, and that translates to losing the sale. On a positive note, it’s an opportunity that if seized upon, can allow you to strengthen and grow your company while building a solid foundation of loyal, happy, repeat customers. And ultimately, isn’t that we all really want to achieve?
TIP #1: AVOID LIP SERVICE AND ANALYZE YOUR REALITY
- First, honestly ask yourself if customer service has really ever been recognized as an integral component and priority in your business. We’d all agree it’s the “right thing” to do … but in reality, is it more than just a ‘feel good’ concept that’s really never gained its sea legs?
- Is there a written value or service statement that clearly and succinctly defines your company’s position on customer service? This will help you judge your performance and will act as a very basic barometer from which to measure.
- If you do have a customer service statement, review it carefully and determine if the language is truly reflective of your company’s position and delivery. Does your company ‘walk the talk’ it created? Very important: Do you keep the promises that you make to your customers? And, how exactly do you measure your success or failure in these areas?
- What specific ongoing customer service programs or initiatives are you actively engaged in? What is your frequency? What is the level of activity and results? Too many companies are gung-ho on any number of new fangled start-ups, only then to fail in consistent follow-up and delivery. Evaluate what you are doing, how often you are doing it, and how well you’re doing.
It’s easy to pay lip service, but the test is whether you’ve taken the necessary time to define what it means to your company specifically, much less made it a meaningful and significant part of your corporate culture. When undertaking any type of customer service program, you must create accountability and responsibility for execution. Is there sufficient manpower to conduct your existing or proposed programs, and have you designated an individual to oversee this important effort?
One company that apparently gets it is the Gowrie Group, one of the top recreational marine industry insurance specialists and among the largest and fastest growing independents in the country. What began as a small group of enthusiastic, hands-on sailors who specialized in providing insurance to boat owners in coastal New England has grown to 125 team members from Newport, Rhode Island to Los Angeles, California, with the core team based in Connecticut. Gowrie insures individuals, families, businesses and their assets around the globe.
When asked about its customer service philosophy, the response was immediate.
“There are a lot of negative associations for people with the word insurance,” said Carter Gowrie, president. “People rightly hate bureaucracy and confusion. In our organization, we commit to being the antidote to all that. We simplify. We communicate. We make smart connections to get the right protection in place for clients. We approach every transaction as if we were doing it for a family member or friend.”
No gray area here. The philosophy is simply stated and measurable.
TIP #2: TACKLING STARTS AT THE TOP
There’s an old saying that’s been bandied about in my house for years: “If mama don’t want it, it ‘aint happening.” Well ‘aint that the truth!
This same attitude applies to customer service. If the ownership or leadership of the business or organization doesn’t buy in to the need and priority for excellent – no, superior – customer service, it ‘aint happening. If management couldn’t care less about its customers, or to a lesser extreme, has a low level of expressed commitment, what chance of success does the guy on the front line have of caring and nurturing customers before, during or after the sale? It’s clearly an uphill battle. The tackling of this topic must start at the top if there is any chance of it trickling down to and motivating the front line.
Gowrie’s customer service philosophy is a clean, smooth, touchdown operation that includes strategic plays requiring finely honed teamwork. Every player knows the game plan and is expected to perform accordingly.
“First, no one comes aboard our team unless they have the kind of energy and relationship strengths we are looking for,” explains Gowrie. “We hire for smarts, good humor and enthusiasm. We reinforce it in team meetings and training, and we share our great service stories and accolades by e-mail and on our electronic ‘quote board’ on a daily basis. Our quote board is a massive flat screen in our main office that runs through hundreds of recent testimonials from our enthusiastic clients.”
And how does the leadership team ensure the focus on the customer is understood by everyone within the organization, from the friendly and capable receptionist to each and every new hire? They invest regularly and substantially in ongoing training activities.
“We conduct ‘The Gowrie Way’ training for all new hires,” said Whitney Peterson, Gowrie vice president of marketing. “These are a set of service standards which are reviewed and emphasized for every employee during our orientation process.”
“In addition, each department reinforces a different aspect of service excellence at each of their monthly meetings,” she added.
“We always include a service training component at our all-staff Spring and Fall meetings. We engage guest speakers to conduct motivational sessions on service. We avail ourselves of insurance company programs and outside training programs on customer service on an ongoing basis as part of employees’ ongoing development goals. We adopt best practices from business leadership groups of which we are members.”
TIP #3: AVOID THE “ONE NIGHT STAND” MENTALITY
What always amazes me is how seldom businesses communicate with their customers following the sale.
During the hunt when the sale is a live, breathing target, we press forward with abundant enthusiasm and unbridled interest, demonstrating our sincere interest and zeal in meeting our customer’s wants and needs. We often take on the mentality of “anything goes – whatever it takes to get the sale!” We will wine and dine, call and cajole, courting that sale with all the fervor of a passionate lover. But once the consummation is complete, do we treat our customers like one-night stands with nary a parting goodbye before we move onto the next conquest?
Our customers deserve the benefit of a caring, win-win relationship with a long-term focus. Those who adopt the slam, bam, thank you ma’am approach to customer service will not maintain their customers or build loyalty. The goal is to transcend the perception of that one-night stand sales guy who is only interested in getting into your wallet, to becoming a trusted and valued resource, expert, and if you’re really good, a friend.
TIP #4: TALK TO … AND ABOUT ME!
So, what’s the primary key to any successful relationship?
Top of the list: Great communications! Regular communications. Non-sales-related communications. If you want your customers to do business with you again and to refer you to others in their sphere of influence, you’ve got to care enough to communicate.
This may range from everything from a hand written note card expressing thanks for their business or a birthday and holiday greeting, to regularly distributed e-newsletters and e-blasts about activities regarding your business and THEIR investment in it. It may include personal invitations to VIP events, or maybe springing for an occasional lunch or cup of joe. Seems old fashioned in these days of impersonal e-mails, texts, Twitters and social posts, but when was the last time someone from your company simply picked up the ancient contraption known as a telephone and called a customer to ask how he was enjoying the product of his choice?
One very savvy sales person I had the fortune to work with on a major big ticket transaction took the time to clip out some magazine articles on a specific topic I had expressed interest in, and on his own, sent them to me in the mail with a personal card. He demonstrated his sincere interest in my needs and to this day, continues to call to see how I’m enjoying my motorcycle and to share tidbits of news or to invite me to various events and activities of interest associated with the dealership. He’s earned my business and my trust. When it’s time to trade up, he’ll be my first call.
The really great sales professionals know how to probe, and they ask many questions to learn all about you, your family members (by name), your hobbies and interests. Most folks like nothing more than to talk about themselves and to hear their own names. Wise sales professionals, according to world class salesman and trainer Tom Hopkins, understand that “having your customers like and trust you should be your first goal.” Investing in your customers and taking care of their wants and needs creates and builds that foundation of trust.
I interviewed Joe Calloway, an author and business consultant whose impressive client list includes global leaders like IBM and BMW, among others. Calloway’s top business book, “Becoming a Category of One,” includes numerous customer service and retention strategies. When addressing customer relations, his top three customer rules include: “1) know more about the customer than anyone else; 2) get closer to the customer than anyone else; and 3) emotionally connect with the customer better than anyone else.” None of this will ever take place without communication.
Once you’ve collected valuable customer information, then it’s time to manage it and put it to work for you! Every organization should have an active customer contact management program in place that is encouraged, mandated and frequently monitored. Whether it is as basic as a call log with a weekly report meeting, an inexpensive web-based customer management program, or the more costly, customized and comprehensive products now available on the market, there are numerous options to aid you in this effort. Take the time to research and find one that is best suited to your company. As Nike proclaims in its ad campaigns, just do it!
TIP 5: FOLLOW UP…NOW!
Ask scores of disgruntled customers what they are most unhappy about, and vying neck-to-neck with the obvious faulty product or service complaint is the lack of follow-up or timely response from the company, coupled with the inability to connect easily in order to make their complaint heard.
Does your organization have an establishing protocol for dealing with unhappy customers … immediately? Is there a system in place with defined parameters and timelines for follow-up? Any of us who have ever experienced the run-around or spent frustrating hours being stuck on hold or trying to navigate an answering machine without a live body know exactly how this wreaks havoc on relationships.
According to customer service expert C. Leslie Charles, author of The Customer Service Companion, “…the longer the customer has to live with a problem, the greater the chance it will get blown out of proportion.” She adds, “A problem which gets addressed promptly and positively (even when it is only partially solved), usually pleases customers more than a long, drawn out solution. Problem solving is one situation that operates on its own time frame – now!”
On the other hand, the prompt and professional handling of service issues or complaints can actually strengthen a customer bond. Few products or services are 100 percent error free or without maintenance-related issues. The cheerful attitude toward addressing problems, along with successfully identifying the issues and resolving them in short order, can turn an unhappy customer into your firm’s biggest cheerleader and advocate.
Failing to follow-up or ignoring the customer and not addressing the issue, however, may lead to less than desirable results such as costly lawsuits or embarrassing smear campaigns that can vastly diminish your company’s reputation and standing in the marketplace. Over the years, I’ve seen a plethora of nasty responses launched over obvious customer service issues gone awry, ranging from mega balloons and banners flying over boat shows with negative company messages, to countless verbal attacks and posts on all sorts of social media networks, to class action lawsuits.
TIP 6: ONLINE AND ON TARGET!
Another less obvious and somewhat tricky area that companies must consider regarding customer service and follow-up involves the internet. Whether it is a customer complaint or a legitimate prospect inquiry, how many times have respondents to your website or social media site failed to receive a timely reply to their solicitation?
The wonderful aspect of an online environment is your opportunity to engage your customers or prospects in real time, providing them the latest news about your products and services, and giving them reasons to connect with your company. Are you harvesting these leads with real intent, or losing out to a more responsive online competitor? Someone from your organization should be assigned monitoring and response duties for all of your various online initiatives. You might be surprised by how many opportunities you’ve lost by the simple failure to follow-up to captured prospects or customers!
If you’re paying attention, you may also discover repetitive types of questions or customer service inquiries that you could easily address through FAQ or other tools, if you’re paying attention and trending your data. Track the content of your web-based activities and if you recognize patterns, take the proper course to rectify the void by making it easy for your customers to get the information they need or to know how to make contact with the right people to address their particular issues or area of concern.
Bottom line: if you don’t know the stats from your web site activity, chances are you have no idea what you may be missing. Remember: he who responds more rapidly has the best chance to win the sale!
TIP 6: KNOW THYSELF!
Some companies prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand versus finding out what their customers think about their performance. I remember stopping in at a boat show one year and noticing that the vice president of the company was tucked in the back area by the closing booths the whole time. I asked why he wasn’t out meeting with customers and was told by another staffer that “he didn’t want to get beat up on the product.” If you want to know how you’re doing, you have to be willing to listen and to ask. And ask you should!
There are any numbers of ways to measure your performance with your customers, from simple mailed surveys with prepaid return envelopes, to easy online surveys you can execute with an outside provider for minimal cost. You can also conduct casual or more formal focus groups or at the very least, talk 1:1 to your customers at boat shows or special events and ask them what you can be doing to improve their customer experience. When they give you feedback, however, write it down, record it and share the results with whoever needs to know. It’s a blessing to have customers care enough to share their feedback on your product or service.
The Gowrie Group constantly analyzes its service through retention and referral measurements. According to Gowrie, “We keep our clients and we win their friends. We ask for feedback, informally and through our annual satisfaction survey. We keep a very accurate scorecard of how our customers value each aspect of our service and we share the results with the staff constantly.”
But Gowrie’s own personal favorite method of measuring performance is very personal. “… it’s the number of spontaneous messages I get from clients lauding our team members. Those keep coming in and it tells me we are doing something special.”
TIP #7 - CREATE CUSTOMERS FOR LIFE
Part of your customer service strategy should include the development of ongoing events and activities that will keep your customers coming back for more.
Successful customer-driven businesses today have capitalized on the camaraderie principle by providing ongoing initiatives that bring customers into the family. Whether this is a VIP group or club concept, frequent buyer program or other similar sales stimuli, the goal is to find legitimate reasons to keep your customers close and connected to your business.
In the marine world, we’ve seen a mix of successful endeavors ranging from rendezvous and open houses, to regattas and club programs, to seminars with experts and appreciation parties, to interactive web-based e-communication programs. Get creative in developing your own ways to stay connected, but stay connected you must!
A FINAL CHALLENGE
There are countless things, large and small, that can and will make or break a relationship but one thing is for sure: in today’s tightening and tough economy where every dime counts, it’s more important than ever to invest in your customer service and retention programs. Thomas Lacki, Ph.D. of the Peppers & Rogers Group, reminds us that “it is five times more expensive to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one.” With these odds, doesn’t it make sense to refocus your manpower to do the right thing?
Perhaps now is the time to revisit with your team and to honestly review and analyze exactly how and what you’re doing to create loyal customers, and to recommit yourselves to serving your valuable customers with excellence.
Wanda Kenton Smith is editor of Waypoints, president of Marine Marketers of America, national marketing columnist for Soundings Trade Only since 1997, and owner/president of Kenton Smith Marketing, www.kentonsmithmarketing.com For more information or to comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org