Customer Service in a Modern World
From a business perspective, the concept of customer service has changed.
Originally, a company would learn to produce something, and then figure out a way to get people to give them money for it. This model worked so long as the item in question was not available in the market. In a competitive marketplace, a company must be sensitive to the needs of customers in order to provide a product they will buy, because it's better than the competitions. And "better than" is in the opinion of the customer, not the company.
Changing Consumer Needs
Customer needs have changed over time.
- In the 1930's, their choice was to buy a good, or to do without it.
- Around 1940, customers became bargain shoppers, buying the cheapest good available.
- Around 1950, they became quality shoppers, paying a premium for goods that last longer, go further, or do a better job than cheaper alternatives.
- Around 1960, the emphasis turned to status: customers purchased goods not because they needed them, but because having a certain good, and a certain quality of good, demonstrated their belonging to a certain social class.
- In the 1970's, the preference turned to convenience - obtaining a good with the least effort possible,
- Around the 1980's, customization was possible, and consumers wanted goods that could be manufactured or tailored to their individual preferences.
- In the 1990's, people turned to wanting "proof," which could take various forms: word-of-mouth testimonials, warrantees and guarantees, and free samples, trial periods, and demo versions
- In 2000, people want customer service - a positive experience in the buying and ownership process, in addition to the good they are purchasing
One key factor is that the customer did not abandon his old demands in favor of new ones: these demands were cumulative. And where they are in conflict (price versus quality), each customer has a specific balance he desires (hence the existence of various brands at various price points).
Making It Easy To Do Business With You
Doing business online leverages many of the qualities customers seek: the good is available in their channel of choice (other goods do not exist for them), it is often possible to provide a lower price, the habit of purchasing online gives the customer a sense of status, buying online is convenient, the internet provides extensive proof, and a web site can provide a positive customer service experience.
Chances are, it is already too late merely to "be online" - your competitors are already there. You have to look at the other factors that customers consider, and outperform your competitors in as many ways as possible. Also, your competitors are probably not resting on their laurels: they are currently planning ways in which to be better tomorrow than they are today. If you are imitating them, you are catching up to where they are - and by the time you've reached this point, they will already have taken the next step (or two) forward. You must innovate, nor imitate; predict, not react.
By its nature, the Web fills several demands: it is available 24/7, wherever your customers are (or want to access your site), but there are three areas in which customers expect ever-increasing levels of service:
- Access to product information - Providing as much information as possible about your products is key to getting your customers to value them more than other products for which information is scant. In B2C sales, you're providing input into a customer's decision. In B2B sales, you are also giving a person the ammunition they need to get permission (and budget) to buy from you.
- Access to order-status information - In the early days, a customer would send off an order into the void, and would not hear anything until the good was delivered (or they called in exasperation to find out why it has not yet been received). In the current age, customers expect to know when it will be delivered, when it will be shipped, exactly where it is right now, when a backorder will be filled, what can be done to get their needs filled faster
- Access to account information - In addition to knowing current orders, customers want to see the orders they have placed in the past, be able to place orders for the future, check the status of their account (in terms of credit, bulk discounts, etc.)
On one hand, providing this level of information is a terrible burden on the supplier - but on the other hand, supplying this information will help you retain a customer, get more orders from them, gain a higher share-of-wallet, save money serving them.
Most importantly, it leads customers to prefer your company over others, and preempts them from shopping around. It is well known that the cost of retaining a customer is far less than acquiring a new one - but what's left unsaid is that the way to retain a customer is to ensure their compelte satisfaction.
To achieve a high level of customer satisfaction, you will have to see your company through the eyes of the customer: understand their needs and desires, and see the ways in which your company fulfills them (or fails to do so).
It is not about your firm's capabilities and preferences - what you can deliver, and what you are willing to do are of far less importance (none at all, in fact) when compared to what the customer expects you to deliver, and what they expect you to do for them.