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Volume 6   Issue 6                July  2005

Conquering Customer Service

Emerging Victorious from this Famous Battleground

by Cindy Ihrke

Quality product?  Outstanding research and development? Check. Exemplary sales force? Check. 

You’ve spent years grooming your company to be the best it can be, and by all rights, that should guarantee you and your business a stable, steady relationship with customers for years to come. There’s only one problem: in the global competitive environment of the early 2000s, every one of your competitors has been doing the exact same thing. They are reading the same books, attending the same conferences and even watching you carefully to see what they can learn from your success. There’s only one battleground left: service. 

Tell Me More
Experts in customer service can’t say it enough times: Your brand is your promise to your customers, and if you don’t keep your promise, someone else will. Listening and responding to your customers is your first critical action. In order to do this effectively, you must have complete knowledge of what your customer wants.

“A blind market survey of customers is an essential first step in customer service analysis,” says Jim Quinlivan, channel manager at Truth Hardware. 

“What we found in our survey was that we weren’t always asking our customers the right type of questions. The most important thing we needed to be asking was: ‘Tell me more.’”

It seems obvious that the best way to improve customer service would be to ask customers questions directly. Many manufacturers take this first step, finding out surface-level problems and developing surface-level solutions. But by consistently asking, “Tell me more,” manufacturers achieve a deeper, more sustainable relationship with customers by tapping into their specific interests and desires. 

“As long as a supplier is willing to adapt to a customer, even the most price-sensitive customer will realize the value in the relationship,” says Quinlivan. “Once we know what they value—what really brings someone the greatest satisfaction in working with us—we can ask better questions, listen more effectively, and retain that customer for the long run.”

When our company dug deeper, we found that their customers wanted more of a partnership. 

“We knew there was a trend in the industry where our customers wanted a customized look for their window and door hardware,” says Brian Dallmann, customer-focused business unit manager. “But what we didn’t fully realize is that they wanted our participation in the development of their look very early in the process.

Once we identified this as a key customer buying criteria, we knew that we had the opportunity to provide something unique for the industry. Customers desired a completely custom aesthetic look that allowed them to have a differentiated appearance, built on an existing platform product, without significant investment on the customer’s part.”

Another lesson learned from the survey was the need to draw advice and experience, not just from customers, but fellow suppliers as well. 

“We realized that we had a lot to learn from our peers,” says Quinlivan. “Other suppliers to the window and door market are dealing with the same challenges that we are. By benchmarking the best practices of a select group of suppliers, we could improve not just the way we do business, but the across-the-board experience of our customers. It’s a win-win, because they get to find out how we’re approaching things as well.”

Service Starts from Within
Building world-class customer service can demand a top-to-bottom philosophy shift. If every individual at a given company does not agree wholeheartedly that every action should benefit the customer, then the entire customer service initiative suffers. 

“We knew we needed to spread the word about our renewed focus on service,” says Matt Kottke, marketing support manager. “We embraced the ‘Customer, Care, Commitment’ philosophy throughout the company, recognizing employees and teams who have gone the extra mile to service our customers. 

By doing things like celebrating positive customer responses in a weekly newsletter, we acknowledge how important it is for all employees to ‘choose to care’ for the customer, every day, in every job.”

Another way our company is supporting company-wide commitment to customer loyalty is the utilization of a Contact Resources Management (CRM) program. This is a software tool that allows companies to gather and collect data in one centralized location. 

“This has proved to be a valuable tool for our employees to follow the status of projects, as well as providing a centralized database for a wide assortment of information about our customers including personnel, contact information, product/market mix, etc.,” says Kottke. “We are able to provide up-to-date information to key personnel in a clear, concise, and easy to navigate format so that they are able to improve and enhance our responsiveness to the customer.”

Inside sales lead Michelle Scott explains that the database records anecdotal as well as more utilitarian information about a customer’s relationship with Truth. 

“We wanted to create a clearinghouse that offered a global view throughout the organization: from product support to technical services to new business development to sales and marketing to the executive level, everyone has the same access to the same information. It creates better visibility of our customers’ needs, and lets us personalize our service at every level,” she says. 

Let’s say we’re working with a customer on a new product design. The salesperson can submit information with the CRM database that is accessed by employees in engineering, product management, forecasting, and a wide assortment of departments/personnel that need to be alerted to the developments of this project.

Rather than having a series of e-mails going from one workstation to another, and back again, the information is all captured in this one area where company personnel can access it easily and post relative information. This increases Truth’s efficiency and responsiveness dramatically when working on a project, as everyone knows where to go to get the most current information.

Another example would be when a customer is upgrading to a new product. We can manage the changeover much more efficiently now that we are able to communicate easily with the necessary in-house parties relative to when the change will be occurring—what current inventory levels are, and when new product will be available.

With everyone on the same page we avoid instances where something might get overlooked because someone may not have been copied on an e-mail, or included in a meeting due to other conflicts. This tool is the source we all use to get the most up-to-date information.

While developing successful, enduring customer service practices can sometimes be a painful and/or expensive process, the rewards go far beyond the bottom line. 

“I watch how we react to customer needs now and I get great satisfaction knowing that it’s not the same way that we would have reacted five or even three years ago,” says Kottke.

 “We might have been doing the right thing at the time, but I am proud to know that we’ve built on what was considered acceptable, and created an exceptional customer experience.” 

Whatever the business, whether it’s a window manufacturing company or a supplier, all companies need to determine how to win in the field of customer service. y

Cindy Ihrke is the support service manager for Truth Hardware, designer and manufacturer of operating hardware for windows and doors headquartered in Owatonna, Minn. 

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