We live in a world of social media and instant communication, peer review sites and messaging. People are sharing their experiences of products, service brands and life in general, more than ever before. And not just people – the people that your business deals with – your customers and prospects – your buyers.
This has several implications for a business, firstly your product or service has to do its job, it has to be fit for purpose – otherwise, your customers will share their feelings and views on its shortcomings with other customers and potential prospects. Word will soon get around, and you will find it hard to improve sales without fixing the product or service and publicising the fact. Secondly, your customer support has to be fit for purpose too – you have to keep your customers happy, or again, those poor experiences will be shared.
Let’s assume that your product or service is up to scratch – how do you keep your customers happy throughout the sales process, and just as importantly, through the after sales cycle too?
In a perfect world
Imagine a company where every person working for it was a magician. When something goes wrong, they would wave their magic wand and fix it. Furthermore, they are also clairvoyant – so they would know when a customer was having a problem, and therefore be able to magic the fix immediately. In such a world, customer service would be a simple matter of fixing every problem rapidly and to perfection.
Many companies in the real world believe that this is the key to customer service – fixing every problem rapidly and perfectly – despite the chances of that actually happening being virtually nil. In this situation companies tend to rush around fighting the inevitable fires, trying to get perfection. What suffers in this situation is often customer communication as all resources and time are spent trying to fix everything all at once.
Another symptom of this approach is that the salespeople tend to be unrealistic about delivery dates, potential problems, suitability of the product or service and after sales service – which can all be traced back to the company’s belief that everything can be fixed.
In the real world
In the real world, keeping the customer happy is about one thing – managing expectations.
No company is perfect – no system is perfect – no employee is perfect, so you will never be able to produce perfect products, provide perfect solutions to problems and you won’t be able to do this instantly either (unless you have that magic wand?).
If you concentrate on managing a customer’s expectations instead of trying to achieve perfect customer service, you will find that, surprisingly, most customers are quite forgiving – providing you keep them appropriately informed.
Now that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t strive to produce better products and services that require less maintenance and after sales service, that you shouldn’t strive to give the best possible aftercare you can provide – of course you should. But you need to realise that not only is that not always possible – it’s actually not nearly as important as managing expectations.
So how do we manage expectations? Here are eight key points:
- Managing expectations starts at the very beginning
- It is a company-wide and multi-disciplinary approach
- It is part of the contract and a selling point
- Practice what you preach
- It relies on appropriate communication
- It is customer-centric
- It never stops
Managing expectations starts at the very beginning
If you make exaggerated claims for your product or service, or over-promise, then your customer service will be forced to play catch up and you will never meet your customer’s expectations. This truthfulness and honesty is not only important in your company brochures, website and sales material, but should extend to all your published content and to your salespeople as well. Over-enthusiastic salespeople keen to make a sale can often over-promise or gloss over real issues that will only surface later – causing the customer issues and the company headaches, time and money to sort out.
From the first contact to the last, all communications and content should be honest and realistic. This will result in greater customer trust, greater customer retention and greater customer advocacy – along with recommendations to their peers.
A company-wide and multi-disciplinary approach
From the marketing department producing content to the salesperson negotiating the deal, to the customer service team, to the maintenance, delivery, repair and installation personnel – the entire company needs to take a managing expectations approach to keeping the customer happy. If any one person within the company over-promises, then that will sabotage the whole approach.
Part of the contract and a selling point
You may or may not be surprised to find that being honest with your customer is actually a valid and strong selling point – giving the customer good, honest advice is valued and helps to develop the all-important and crucial trust – leading to a solid relationship between customer and vendor. After all, nothing ruins trust quicker than finding out someone has lied to you.
If the client enters into a contract or a sale knowing exactly what the implications are – both good and bad, it makes for fewer complications later on.
Practice what you preach
It is important that along with managing expectations you are honest and truthful with your actions as well as your words. Make sure that when you promise an action, you know you can deliver it. Building up trust in a customer relationship is about doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it. And if you have any problems delivering that, let the customer know straight away and explain what has happened and the implications for them.
Communication throughout the customer relationship is absolutely at the heart of managing expectations. Good communication can help mitigate the effects of any kind of problem – big or small. If the customer knows what to expect, then they can plan accordingly. If problems hit them out of the blue, they cannot work around them or make contingency plans. Ultimately this will cost them time, money and revenue.
But if they know there is an issue they can work around it, they can inform the people within their company who are affected – they may even have their own customers whose expectations they need to manage.
I’ve called it appropriate communication because you don’t need to tell your customer everything – you don’t need to give them every detail or keep them informed minute by minute (unless that is appropriate to the business you are in). They don’t want to know. What they need to know are the key facts. The pertinent details that will affect their business.
How do you decide what is pertinent? What details are relevant? How often should you communicate? To answer these questions you have to understand that in order to successfully manage expectations you have to understand your customer. The more you understand your customer, their business and the issues they face, the more you will be able to determine what information they need and when, in order to make their business decisions.
We constantly return to this principle for marketing and sales – understand your customer. It is equally important to customer service. As this should be at the heart of all your marketing and sales efforts, it should not be difficult to extend that to customer service as well.
HubSpot have recently advocated a flywheel approach to sales, rather than the traditional funnel model. This approach places customers and growth in the middle of a dedicated platform solution that covers sales, marketing, and service solutions for organisations big and small.
It acknowledges that the role of marketing needs to extend beyond conversion to customer advocacy. The focus is on reducing friction for your sales, marketing, and service teams so the customer journey moves smoothly and the customer experience is exceptional.
We started this article by pointing out the implications of our ever more connected world – keeping customers happy is imperative for a modern business. This is not only true to ensure your reputation is maintained and your successes are shared, but for repeat sales as well. We know that it is considerably easier to sell to an existing customer than to sell to a new prospect.
So excellent customer service is about managing expectations rather than chasing after perfection. Do what you are going to do when you say you are going to do it, be honest and truthful from the start and let customers know of any problems and how those problems might impact their business.