Customer care is a crucial element of business success. Every contact your customers have with your business is an opportunity for you to improve your reputation with them and increase the likelihood of further sales.
From your telephone manner to the efficiency of your order-fulfilment systems, almost every aspect of your business affects the way your customers view your business. But there are also specific programs you can put in place to increase your levels of customer care.
This guide outlines what customer care involves. It explains how you can use customer contact, feedback and loyalty schemes to retain existing customers, increase your sales to them and even win new customers. It also covers how to prepare for receiving a customer complaint.
What is customer care?
Customer care involves putting systems in place to maximise your customers' satisfaction with your business. It should be a prime consideration for every business - your sales and profitability depends on keeping your customers happy.
Customer care is more directly important in some roles than others. For receptionists, sales staff and other employees in customer-facing roles, customer care should be a core element of their job description and training, and a core criterion when you're recruiting.
But don't neglect the importance of customer care in other areas of your business. For instance, your warehousing and shipping departments may have minimal contact with your customers - but their performance when fulfilling orders has a major impact on customers' satisfaction with your business.
A huge range of factors can contribute to customer satisfaction, but your customers -both consumers and other businesses - are likely to take into account:
- how well your product or service matches customer needs
- the value for money you offer
- your efficiency and reliability in fulfilling orders
- the professionalism, friendliness and expertise of your employees
- how well you keep your customers informed
- the after-sales service you provide
Training courses may be useful for ensuring the highest possible levels of customer care.
Understand your customers
In business-to-business trading, providing a high level of customer care often requires you to find out what your customers want. Once you have identified your most valuable customers or best potential customers, you can target your highest levels of customer care towards them. Another approach, particularly in the consumer market, is the obligation to treat all consumers to the highest standard.
Collect information about your customers
Information about your customers and what they want is available from many sources, including:
- their order history
- records of their contacts with your business - phone calls, meetings and so on
- direct feedback - if you ask them, customers will usually tell you what they want
- changes in individual customers' order patterns
- changes in the overall success of specific products or services
- feedback about your existing range - what it does and doesn't do
- enquiries about possible new products or services
- feedback from your customers about things they buy from other businesses
- changes in the goods and services your competitors are selling
- feedback and referrals from other, non-competitive suppliers
See our guide Know your customers' needs.
Manage your customer information
It's important that you draw up a plan about how customer information is to be gathered and used in your business. Establish a customer-care policy. Assign a senior manager as the policy's champion but make sure that all your staff are involved - often the lower down the scale you go, the more direct contact with customers there is.
You can manage your customer records using a database system or with customer relationship management software.
You should be aware that collecting and using customer information requires you to comply with Québec’s An Act respecting the protection of personal information in the private sector.
Measure your customer service levels
Where possible, put systems in place to assess your performance in business areas which significantly affect your customers' satisfaction levels. Identify Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which reflect how well you're responding to your customers' expectations.
For instance, you might track:
- sales renewal rates
- the number of queries or complaints about your products or services
- the number of complaints about your employees
- the number of damaged or faulty goods returned
- average order-fulfilment times
- the number of contacts with a customer each month
- the volume of marketing material sent out and responses generated
- time taken from order to delivery
Your customers and employees will be useful sources of information about the KPIs which best reflect key customer service areas in your business. Make sure the things you measure are driven not by how your business currently runs, but by how your customers would like to see it run.
There are important areas of customer service which are more difficult to measure. Many of these are human factors such as a receptionist's telephone manner or a salesperson's conduct while visiting clients. In these areas it's crucial that you get feedback from your customers about their perceptions of your customer service.
Customer surveys, feedback programmes and occasional phone calls to key customers can be useful ways of gauging how customer service levels in your business are perceived.
Customer feedback and contact programs
Customer feedback and contact programmes are two ways of increasing communication with your customers. They can represent great opportunities to listen to your customers and to let them know more about what you can offer.
Customer feedback can provide you with detailed information about how your business is perceived. It's a chance for customers to voice objections, suggest changes or endorse your existing processes, and for you to listen to what they say and act upon it. Feedback is most often gathered using questionnaires, in person, over the telephone or by mail.
The purpose of customer contact programs is to help you deliver tailored information to your customers. One example is news of a special offer that is relevant to a past purchase - another is a reminder sent at the time of year when a customer traditionally places an order. Contact programs are particularly useful for reactivating relationships with lapsed customers.
Do your best to make sure that your customers feel the extra contact is relevant and beneficial to them - bombarding customers with unwanted calls or marketing material can be counter-productive. Newsletters and email bulletins allow you to keep in touch with useful information.
Customer loyalty schemes
While good overall service is the best way of generating customer loyalty, sometimes new relationships can be strengthened, or old ones refreshed, using customer loyalty schemes.
These are programs that use fixed or percentage discounts, extra goods or prizes to reward customers for behaviour that benefits your business. They can also be used to persuade customers to give you another try if you feel you have successfully tackled past problems with your customer service.
You can decide to offer rewards on the basis of:
- repeat custom
- cumulative spend
- orders for large quantities or with a high value
- prompt payment
- length of relationship
For example, a car wash might offer free cleaning every tenth visit or a free product if a customer opts for the deluxe service. A mail-order company might seek to revive the interest of lapsed customers by offering a voucher redeemable against purchases -response rates with such vouchers can be improved by setting an expiry date.
You can also provide key customers with loyalty cards that entitle them to a discount on all their purchases.
Employees who deal with customers' orders should be fully aware of current offers and keep customers informed. Sometimes brochures and other marketing materials are the best way of getting word out about a new customer incentive.
Don't forget though that your customers' view of the overall service you provide will influence their loyalty much more than short-term rewards will.
Use customer care to increase sales
Your existing customers are among the most important assets of your business - they have already chosen you instead of your competitors. Keeping their custom costs far less than attracting new business, so it's worth taking steps to make sure that they're satisfied with the service they receive.
There are a number of techniques you can employ, including:
- providing a free customer helpline
- answering frequently asked questions on your website
- following up sales with a courtesy call
- providing free products that will help customers look after or make the most of their purchases
- sending reminders when services or check-ups are due
- offering preferential discounts to existing customers on further purchases
Existing customer relationships are opportunities to increase sales because your customers will already have a degree of trust in your recommendations.
Cross-selling and up-selling are ways of increasing either the range or the value of what you sell by pointing out new purchase possibilities to these customers.
Alerting customers when new, upgraded or complimentary products become available – perhaps through regular emails or newsletters - is one way of increasing sales.
To retain your customers' trust, however, never try to sell them something that clearly doesn't meet their needs. Remember, your aim is to build a solid long-term relationship with your customers rather than to make quick one-off profits.
Satisfied customers will contribute to your business for years, through their purchases and through recommendations and referrals of your business.
How to deal with customer complaints
Every business has to deal with situations in which things go wrong from a customer's point of view.
However you respond if this happens, don't be dismissive of your customer's problem - even if you're convinced you're not at fault. Although it might seem contradictory, a customer with a complaint represents a genuine opportunity for your business:
- if you handle the complaint successfully, your customer is likely to prove more loyal than if nothing had gone wrong
- people willing to complain are rare - your complaining customer may be alerting you to a problem experienced by many others who silently took their custom elsewhere
Complaints should be handled courteously, sympathetically and - above all - swiftly. Make sure that your business has an established procedure for dealing with customer complaints and that it is known to all your employees. At the very least it should involve:
- listening sympathetically to establish the details of the complaint
- recording the details together with relevant material, such as a sales receipt or damaged goods
- offering rectification - whether by repair, replacement or refund
- appropriate follow-up action, such as a letter of apology or a phone call to make sure that the problem has been made good
If you're proud of the way you rectify problems - by offering no-questions refunds, for example - make sure your customers know about it. Your method of dealing with customer problems is one more way to stay ahead of your competitors.
Original document, Manage your customer care, © Crown copyright 2009
Source: Business Link UK (now GOV.UK/Business)
Adapted for Québec by Info entrepreneurs