Customer Service – Now missing from American retail.

What is a customer? It is defined by Webster’s as

Customer:

Pronunciation: \ˈkəs-tə-mər\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English custumer, from custume
Date: 15th century

1 : one that purchases a commodity or service

And, what is service?

Service:

Pronunciation: \ˈsər-vəs\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French servise, from Latin servitium condition of a slave, body of slaves, from servus slave
Date: 13th century

1 a : the occupation or function of serving <in active service> b : employment as a servant <entered his service>
2 a : the work performed by one that serves <good service> b : help, use, benefit <glad to be of service> c : contribution to the welfare of others d : disposal for use <I’m entirely at your service>
4 : the act of serving: as a : a helpful act <did him a service> b : useful labor that does not produce a tangible commodity —usually used in plural <charge for professional services> c : serve

Seems easy enough.  Customers are purchasers of  products or services and service means providing work of value and benefit.  Putting the two together, I come up with providing value in the sale of goods or products to customers.  Value means someone will give up or expend some of their resources to get something back that they feel is more valuable than what they gave up.

Today, these basic ideas have gotten lost.  Too often we as consumers give up more than we get back.  Example one is healthcare, as practiced by insurance companies(which are nothing more than retail businesses hidden behind complex ideas).  I will tell you now, I can’t fix healthcare, but I can speak intelligently about it because it helps illustrate my ideas and notions about Customer Service.

Today’s healthcare industry issue is a bright beacon of what is wrong in corporate America.  Healthcare tries to serve two masters:  shareholders and its customers, the insureds.  At some point, corporate America decided to put the shareholder first and the insureds second.  To preserve the profits of the shareholders, service was reduced, adjusted, changed to the insureds on an ongoing basis and rarely did it get adjusted positively.  Fascinating only because without customers, there are no profits.  From a distance, clearly this is a design that will bring less customers unless every insurance company works the same way and consumers have no choice.  This happened and in brief, this is why healthcare is a mess.  The customers receive so little value and service that the healthcare system has for all intensive purposes collapsed.  A dollar in, gets you less than the value of a dollar out for most insured Americans.  If only this system placed the customer first and tried to grow a business based on happy, healthy customers and physicians, the profits would surely follow at a natural level, keeping those profits and administrative costs in check and balance.  The health of healthcare would and should depend on how satisfied the clients are.  Instead, this unhealthy system pays high executive salaries, high dividends and keeps too many employees and then lets the balance pay out meagerly to its customers.  The government is involved now only because there are no alternatives for the consumer to receive more value and for some any value at all.

Take this idea and move it to every day retail.  Ever tried to call an 800 number?  Do you really feel that the person on the other end of the phone at say AT&T, Verizon, Comcast really values you as a long term client?  Why do we feel happy when they simply fix the problem that probably should not have been a problem in the first place!  They are trying to lower our expectations.  You might say that one person does not represent the company, but they do!  Any time a company puts their employees in direct contact with you, their customers, they are giving you their best version of service.  The company that you give your resources ($) to has chosen and trained at great length the english as a second language person you are speaking to.  The message to you is that this is what you deserve!  Are you satisfied?  It is these interactions that shape future purchase and consumer attitudes.  We as consumers will in essence vote with our wallets and place our value or votes with the companies that give us the most return for the value we give them.

The auto industry is a very clear  and similar example.  If Honda sales go up, that means more consumers feel that they get more value from the Honda cars.  Conversely, if GM sales drop, GM is not offering enough value.  Manufacturers make the product and their franchised dealers sell the cars and service them.  The manufacturers want to make the cars.  They want high sales, but they don’t want to sell them.  They leave this work to the dealer body.  In the approximate 20,000 dealerships across America, dealers now seek out the most inexperienced, willing to accept low wage commission only people and put them in the showrooms to interact with the most important people to them:  their customers.  This system is faulty.  These low paid, paid only if they make a sale, undereducated, inexperienced people for the most part cannot offer enough value to efficiently sell the products so they lie, overpromise, underdeliver, overcharge and frustrate the consumer.  Why is it this way?  Haven’t we figured out that consumers do not like this process?  They do it for the same reason insurance companies pay the shareholders first.  So look at healthcare and look at the dealership closings.  No dealerships were closed that were performing well and offering overall value to their customers.

I compete not with dealerships, but with the salespeople who work for them.  In fact the dealers I select encourage my business and understand the limitations of their retail departments.  I will always advise my customer to use a dealer salesperson if they find a great salesperson that listens to their needs, tries to find them the best product in the right color with the right options and then offers it at a fair price, pays fairly for any trade in and offers financing or leasing at the right terms.  This happens very rarely.  Why?  Just like in the healthcare model, the dealer salesperson is trying to first make the dealership happy, then the customer.  The general principle for a dealership salesperson is to “close the customer on the spot with something in stock at the highest terms.”  By design, this offers that salesperson the most reward and the customer very little.  Even today, somewhere in America, a Sales Manager is instructing a Salesperson to make their prospect drive the car they don’t want and see if it makes them excited enough to purchase it today…to call a prospect over and over until they, “buy or die.”  …to suggest “If I could sell you the car for $1, would you buy it?   Yes, then I know you want the car, and while I can’t do it for $1, if you come back to the showroom today, I will do something special for you.”  Really?  This is customer service?

I use as many small businesses for my own personal purchases as I can.  By design, I know they need me and my referrals to grow and sustain themselves.  They recognize me as a valuable part of business and the referrals I can give to them if they earn them.  I don’t buy from people I don’t trust or like.  I know I have choices.  I want the best choice.

I offer this higher level of service t0 my clients.  A happy, satisfied customer is the best way to stay in business and grow that business.  I don’t rush my clients.  I don’t care what car or color or lease or loan, I just want to help my customer make a better decision than they can on their own and get better terms than if they haggled on a showroom floor.  I try to figure out what is best for them, not what generates the quickest easiest profit for my company.  I present options, pros and cons and have the integrity to suggest a client wait for the market terms to change, or take the deal a dealer has offered if indeed they are getting good terms.  I only source cars from dealers that offer higher value to its patrons.  Referrals have kept my doors open as we do next to no marketing.  I recognize that without customers, I would have no business at all.  My customers come first.  Period.

I invite your customer service stories, rantings, ravings and triumphs as they are of particular interest.  I suggest you all remember that you vote with your wallet daily, whether it be for a cup of coffee, fine dining, cell phone service or even the car you buy and how you purchase it.

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