By Michael Gunther

As originally published in The Tolosa Press on May 7th, 2009.  

In an economic downturn, customer service is more important than ever. It would seem that with less workload, businesses would focus almost entirely on maintaining customer relationships-but that is just not the case. Have you noticed service suffering at your favorite restaurant or retail store? I know I have.

Having to minimize expenses, companies make layoffs, so employees are stretched thin.  Yet consumers’ wallets are also stretched. This creates a vicious cycle: companies’ cutbacks affect areas of their customer service while the consumer expects extraordinary service and appreciation for any business they give during these tight times. And if a company does not provide great service, they risk losing the customer; the cycle continues.

It’s easy to see how we got here. Business was booming. Most businesses didn’t have to concentrate on customer service because customers literally walked in the door. Now we’re experiencing the fallout – the Boom Hangover.

Recently, I took my team out for a celebratory event at a well-known local restaurant. With consumers eating out less often and restaurants feeling the hurt of empty tables, you would think we’d have received memorable service, right? Unfortunately, this is one of those businesses suffering from the Boom Hangover. Our server was indifferent, the food came out late, and the dessert menu we requested was never delivered. As we walked out of our private room, we noticed the restaurant was empty; the vicious cycle reveals itself.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing the quality of your products or services to diminish. Business owners and managers today are under more pressure, are making harder decisions, and in many cases (as verified by unemployment growing at the fastest rate in decades) are making layoffs. Though you may not have the clients and cash flow that you did a few months ago, allowing the quality of your product or service to suffer is not a strategy to build business.

We business owners must take action. We need to ask ourselves, “How can I improve service to my clientele with limited resources?” Let’s get back to giving customers what they want. We should be listening, learning, and making changes – today.

First, contact your customers. Start with your best customers – current and past. The only way to make the change your clients desire is to know how they feel about you and your overall customer service and to truly understand what works for them. Perform formal face to face discussions, if at all possible.

One of my clients increased his clientele by creating a focus group of his best customers – the type of customers he wanted more of. He asked them structured questions that related to his service: What do you like and dislike? How can we find other customers like you? Why did you choose to work with us? Their feedback helped him improve his customer relationships and understand how to gain more clientele.

Second, get back to focusing on the end user. Treat every customer that calls, enters your place of business, or is interested in your product or service with the utmost attention. Let them know that you truly appreciate their business.

Recently, some friends and I were at a local pub and were impressed by changes they had made. We mentioned it to the owner, who told us that he had talked to his clients and implemented change based on the feedback. His whole attitude was that his business was better because he listened – and we agreed. When we left, he made sure that we knew he appreciated our business; he appreciated us coming in and supporting a local company. It was an experience I’d like to have again.

Perhaps you feel you don’t have time to talk to customers. You just cut staff and are busier than ever. Make the time to work on service. Take one hour per week to focus on what you could be doing differently with customer service. Remember the cyclical nature of business, and that a client who sees you mean business today may be your most loyal client tomorrow.

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