How to provide ‘extra mile service’

January 20, 2016 -  By

Excellent customer service starts with culture but depends on effective procedures.

Customer service is what differentiates one provider from another in the landscape maintenance arena. Great service, which is typically the responsibility of account managers, is more important than quality, expertise or salesmanship. These things matter immensely, but poor service results in the loss of accounts despite top-notch performance in the field and pristine horticulture. Conversely, poor performance in the field often will be overlooked or forgiven based on strong relationships built on great customer service.

So where does great customer service start? Great customer service results from the way the people who work at the company think about their organization.

Let’s look at some of the high-performing companies in highly competitive industries. Chick-fil-A grosses more revenue per store per year than any other fast food chain, according to trade publication QSR; QuikTrip is “America’s favorite convenience store,” according to a 2014 study; and Southwest Airlines consistently outperforms its peers in the airline industry. In each of these businesses, customer service sets them apart.

Study these companies, and you’ll find there’s enthusiasm about the culture in the organization. Each one has a noble and aspirational set of values that’s taught starting with the hiring and on-boarding process. Company leaders communicate and reiterate a vision of success and have a mission that’s more far-reaching than making money. These companies haven’t left culture to chance; they have intentionally crafted a culture in which the way people act conveys respect and care. People can’t be made to smile at, appreciate, thank and care for their customers. They have to want to, and in these organizations, they do because of the culture.

Creating a worthy culture starts with noble values, an inspirational mission and an aspirational vision. The top leadership must be committed and vocal about these ideals for them to have the power to infuse the culture with concepts larger than the owner’s personality. By the way, many top performing customer service organizations have built their culture around honoring and supporting their employees first and foremost.

Think like a customer

Great customer service is founded in great cultures, but from there, it must be grounded in specific processes, procedures, programs and policies. Start by asking, “What would I want to experience if I were a customer of my company?” The answers you come up with are the foundations for processes and policies. How do you want to be sold to, communicated with and treated? We can start the flow of ideas by asking, “What is great customer service?”

In the landscape business, great service is manifested through respect, trust, proactivity, expert guidance, effective communication, ease of doing business and fun.

When it comes to respect, few things are more frustrating than calls and emails going unanswered or issues going unresolved. Ask your customers how they want to be communicated with: phone calls, emails, text or face to face? And how often? Respect your customers’ time. The commercial property management industry has changed dramatically since the Great Recession, and property managers are doing a great deal more with less. Lunches and chitchat are not as well received today as they once were.

Proactive communication is invaluable. While it may seem obvious to you that a rain event will change your production schedule, communicating it anyway will go a long way. And while your customer doesn’t expect you to be an expert on everything, don’t make them seek answers elsewhere. Do the research for them (you’re taking their money). Sooner or later, they’ll get answers from your competitors if they can’t get them from you. Also, make doing business easy. Don’t ask your customer to choose between 10 different color types and three different design options. Tell them what their best option is.

How does customer service evolve?

In the landscape industry, experts understand that relationships are dynamic. All relationships start with what we call level one, where there is professional air and distance. At this stage, boundaries are set, ideas are scrutinized and trust is built around delivering on promises. In level-one relationships, the customer needs to win, and good account managers understand this is where relationships start. The fact that customers question your ideas and monitor your promises is natural and normal in this stage.

As relationships grow, they may advance to level two. A representative may become trusted as a friend, not simply as a vendor. In this type of relationship, the customer wants both parties to win. The relationship is such that a one-sided win betrays loyalty. Price is a less sensitive issue at this point, and business is a lot more fun.

Occasionally, level-three relationships develop. At this level, there’s complete trust between the parties and it’s important for the customer that the representative win. Clients share information freely at this stage (maybe too much; if personal information is shared, don’t feel obligated to reciprocate, particularly when it comes to company confidentiality). Your ideas are freely accepted and you’re brought into the inner circle.

But where does it start? Customer service starts with a great culture. From there, understanding what makes a great experience for your customers is paramount. Finally, it requires respect for the dynamic nature of relationships. Market leaders get customer service right with intent and attention.

photo: ©istock.com/amanalang

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