How to provide a great service.

A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought were the key ingredients to a successful service.  I answered but not in any great detail.  It's a good question and one I've since thought more about.

This article is geared towards a team of people who have skills others are prepared to pay for rather than a call centre scenario but the principles can be applied to most service types.

1. Offer something that people will buy.

I know it sounds stupid but you'd be amazed how many services launch without the customer base being properly identified.  You must research the market opportunity!  Find out how many people could potentially buy your service.  Define who your target audience is and how many of them you can reach.  Your service might be top notch but if no one has the need for VHS player maintenance, you might want to have a rethink…

After discovering you've got more than ten potential buyers, your next step is to research the competition.  Is there room for another service?  Is someone already dominating and doing a great job?  Ask yourself why people would choose you over the existing options.  Be honest with your analysis.  If another company is already well known and popular with their customers, you'll face an uphill struggle unless you can genuinely offer something superior, different or for better value.  To win the war, you must choose the right battles.

2. Make sure there is profit.

The potential market is HUGE and you're going to win customers for fun because the competition suck.  Great!… Not if it means you won't be able to make money.  There's no point delivering a service that only becomes popular when your profit margin disappears.  This is why you need to work out your break-even point.  Evaluate the time it will take to deliver your service to each customer.  What resources will this require?  Consider use of equipment, staff wages (including your own, working for “free” is nonsense), office rates, tax and anything else that will contribute to your costs.  Once you have this figure you can determine if your service is viable.  Will you be able to add on a profit percentage and still be competitive?

3. Work with clients who are a good fit.

One thing I've learnt over the years is that there is such a thing as a bad sale.  If you see customers as the enemy, you're selling to the wrong people.  If this is you… STOP!  They aren't bad people and they aren't deliberately being awkward.  They just aren't a good fit for your service and you shouldn't have sold to them.  This is counter-productive and you're almost certain to fail.

Before you close the deal, find out what success looks like to the customer.  What are they trying to achieve?  Put yourself in their shoes and decide if your service is suitable.  If the honest answer is no, don't sell to them!  When you work with the right people it's more fun, easier, faster and profitable.  To do this you need to know who your ideal customer is.  What age are they?  What gender?  How wealthy?  What's their personality like?  What are they interested in?  What are their life goals?  How knowledgeable are they on your industry?  How large is their business?  Once you know who your customer is (and who they are not) you can market and sell more effectively.

If after completion, the customer believes they've received more value than the amount they paid then you've succeeded.  Also remember that happy customers are your best marketing tool bar none!

4. Set expectations.

Do what you say you're going to do and never promise something you can't deliver.  Make sure that any potential issues are discussed with the customer from the outset.  It's better to discover the service isn't suitable before you start rather than half way through.  Explain the limitations honestly rather than saying “yes we can do that” to every query.  Customers will have more confidence when you do this.

Set achievable timescales and include a contingency.  During the delivery, the customer should know the key phases of the service and how long each one is likely to take.  Think of it as providing a journey plan with timed checkpoints.  The more the customers expectation is in tune with the service, the smoother the delivery will be.

5. Communication.

Communication is king.  When there's a lack of it customers panic which in turn breeds anger and frustration.  Keep in regular contact.  A brief email or call only takes a minute and can go a long way.

When you encounter a problem, don't bury your head in the sand.  I've found that people are generally very understanding, accommodating and patient when you keep them in the loop.  Make sure the customer knows why it has occurred and what you are doing to fix it.  Provide them with regular progress updates until it has been resolved.  If you do this, you'll most likely gain a loyal customer because they know you'll fight their corner during adversity.

6. Quality of work.

This should go without saying but if what you produce is below par, you're on a collision course with failure.  There are certain companies who have a “churn and burn” philosophy (rip people off and move on to the next victim) but their days are numbered in today's modern and connected world.  User reviews and customer ratings play a key role in decision-making.  Before buying, people now search the web for social proof.  The only way to have a good reputation online is to actually be good at what you do!

You should have passion for your service and genuine belief that it helps people.  Set high standards and take pride in your work.  This passion, belief and pride will transmit to the customer.

7. Team culture.

To have a great service, you need a great team.  The best teams have all members pulling in the same direction, helping each other, working as a collective.  To empower your staff, you need to trust their judgement, give them responsibility, encourage ideas and promote self-initiative.  People who enjoy their work and want to do a good job will out perform those who are told to do a good job or face the consequences.

Most services require one to one interaction with the customer so it's important to have staff with personalities that suit.  Think about the perfect vibe for your service.  Should the customers experience be fun and lively or calm and serious?  Should conversations be informal and personal or brief and professional?

8. Scalability and automation.

You've got everything in place and the service is becoming popular.  What would happen if you had a sudden growth in demand?  If you're not prepared for this you'll either have to increase the lead time or turn away business while you scramble to bolster your systems and resources.  Remember that prevention is better than cure.  Don't take everything on and hope for the best; the customer experience would suffer significantly.

Continually look at all aspects of your service.  Are you writing the same emails over and over again?  Do your customers always ask the same questions?  Does the delivery always slow at a particular stage?  Can manual procedures be automated?  Remember that when you're dealing with volume, every minute counts.  Lets say you deal with 500 customers per year and you manage to reduce delivery time from 10 hours down to 9 (without sacrificing the customers experience): this 1 hour saving would allow you to deliver an additional 55 projects per year!  Don't be a busy fool.  Sharpen your axe rather than chopping harder.

Posted by Dave  14/03/2012

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