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    CUSTOMER SERVICE: Your Best Advantage

      I'd like you to hear about customer service from the mouths of customers. I hope you find it valuable.
      Sellers rarely see their product or service in the same way that buyers do.
    In fact, that is often the heart of a failed advertising campaign. Or
    even a failed business.
      Countless research studies confirm that consumers usually see little
    significant difference among most competing brands in many category. While
    shoppers may be brand loyal to Tide, many don't see it as appreciably
    different than All or Cheer.
      Of course, shoppers do see some differences. But seeing differences is
    not the same as a competitive advantage. But if most buyers don't see the
    product differences so dear to sellers, how can a seller create a
    competitive advantage?
      Customer service may be the only real, long-lasting competitive advantage.
    Here are four ways real customers say you can put good customer service to
    work for you.
      (1) Treat customers like friends.
      John, a truck driver, is from a small town in California. Here's what he
    said about what good customer service is. "Everything is so impersonal
    here. I could go into a lot of stores in my hometown and they'd smile at
    me and say, 'hello.' They didn't necessarily know my name, but they were
    neighborly. They treated me like a human being, not some number dressed up
    in pants."
      I heard this same refrain over and over in my research. Customers see
    through the perfunctory apologies and fake smiles. And it can actually
    make the situation worse.
      I recently waited several hours for an AWA flight that was delayed on the
    ground. When we boarded, the captain offered a fast apology with all the
    sincerity of a telemarketer. No one expected free drinks, but people
    grumbled. One said, "Does he think he's doing us a favor? We're the ones
    paying his salary." A stewardess compounded the problem near the end of
    the flight by sharply telling people who only had their drinks for ten
    minutes, "I need to take everything now. So hurry up and finish."
      The final straw came at the end of a bumpy flight when the stewardess asked
    departing passengers to pull down the shade on their window so the plane
    wouldn't get so hot. Not a big deal, but after being treated like cattle,
    it was the wrong thing to ask passengers. One woman said, "Why should we
    do their jobs for them?" And at least one man actually pushed his closed
    shade back up.
      Of course, most employees of this and other airlines are good at their
    jobs. But these examples point out how one or two employees can
    accidentally damage a company's reputation with many customers by
    delivering only adequate customer service. On the other hand, a good
    employee can burnish a company's reputation.
      Blythe, an infant care professional, recently watched a waitress in a
    coffeeshop at the Aladdin Hotel casino bustle around, talking to customers
    like they were old friends, offering advice about food, keeping coffee cups
    refilled without being asked, and generally acting like she was enjoying
    what she was doing.
      "The really amazing thing about it was how different
    she was from the other waitresses," said Blythe. "They were giving the
    same ordinary service I've come to expect. But when you get treated like a
    nice person, the way my waitress Janice treated me, you realize how much
    we're all really missing in almost every place we go. And when you get
    that treatment, it really makes an impact!" Blythe was so impressed that
    she said she's writing to the casino.
      (2) Give them something, and be sure they know it
      People like a gift. It adds to the perceived value of the payment. Sees
    Candies give buyers a truffle at checkout. Recently I had some work done
    on my car at Whitey's. The mechanic noticed my blinker bulb wasn't working
    and replaced it. When it still didn't work, he found a metal tab that
    wasn't making contact and straightened it. It probably took less than
    sixty seconds. But when he told me he'd fixed a nagging problem I'd had,
    and only charged me for the bulb, the final bill seemed more than fair.
    They always do something like that, which is one of the reasons I keep
    going back.
      Look for a little something you can give away to make your customers feel
    good about your company. Pick something that they will see as having
    value. A cheap plastic keychain gift won't make them happy.
      (3) Take care of customers.
      Many people come to a business because they have a problem. It might be
    something big like a will, or small like lunchtime hunger. Either way,
    they prefer to feel like the business they patronize cares about their
      Lorna is a nurse who just came back from South Carolina. "I was in a Chick
    Fil-A eating my sandwich when an employee came up and asked if everything
    was OK, and if I needed a drink refill or some desert," she said. "I'd
    never seen anything like that in a fast food restaurant. They made me feel
    really good about Chick Fil-A. I'd sure go back again."
      Margot just bought a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) from Best Buy. I
    asked her why there. She said, "I went to Best Buy, Circuit City and
    CompUSA. Everybody else treated me OK. They answered my questions and
    were polite. Everyone's prices were about the same. I bought from Best
    Buy because their clerk spent an hour with me, showing me the good and bad
    points of each PDA, answering all my questions - I didn't know anything
    about PDAs-and he really acted like he cared about me buying the right
    one." (Margot bought an expensive PDA for nearly $700.)
      (4) Know your merchandise.
      Most people have little time to waste. They want to go into a store, be
    treated like a human being, find what they want and leave. If clerks don't
    know the stock or make them wait for answers, customers think they're
    getting lousy customer service. While it helps if they're friendly, it is
    no substitute for knowledge.
      Eric recently had a problem with the expensive computer hardware used to
    run his business. He called Customer Service. "The techie was nice and
    tried to be helpful, but he really only knew the basic things to do, which
    I'd already done. Every hour my computers were down, I was losing money,
    so I probably wasn't very nice. It took me about an hour to bully my way
    up the ladder to some experienced guy who immediately understood what the
    problem was. He talked me through it on the phone in fifteen minutes. It
    ticked me off that I had to wade through all those other people to get to
    the guy with the answers I needed."
      Good customer service from the customer's viewpoint isn't hard. It just
    means following the Golden Rule -- treat people the way you want to be
    treated. It's also a Golden Rule in another way. Those with employees who
    follow the rule get the gold.

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