360 Customer Service

Alan Siger - Wholesale Market

alan-siger-wholesale-marketA wise friend once told old me that whenever you get a notice from a service provider beginning with “In order to serve you better … ,” it really means they are taking something away from you. Think about it: the letter from the bank states, “In order to serve you better, we are closing some branches”; or the notice from the utility company explains how serving you better equates to you reading the meter for them. The consumer loses a service in both of these cases.

Let’s face it, with escalating costs, businesses are always looking for ways to save money. To preserve public perception, big corporations have large public relations departments charged with putting the best spin on these cost-cutting strategies. Though a mega-bank may realize that combining branches will cost them some customers in the short term, the business will often move ahead with the consolidation, determining the long-term savings are worth it. The bank’s business strategists pre-calculate potential customer loss and monitor the actual results. A major deviation from the model might result in a slight tweak, but once implemented, these changes rarely go away.

However, a danger to companies of all sizes is when customers are lost by failures in the company’s operations, breakdowns that can go undetected by management. Let me give you two examples of poor customer service that I recently encountered. I had the privilege to spend a few months in the California desert this past winter. I changed the delivery address of my Sunday New York Times subscription to my California residence without a problem, but when I returned home to Pittsburgh in mid-February, my requested delivery transfer did not occur. First Sunday: No newspaper, called the circulation department, and received a nice apology and a promise to remedy the situation. Second Sunday: No newspaper, called the circulation department, and received the same apology and promise as the previous week. Third Sunday: No newspaper, called the circulation department, and cancelled my subscription.

While in California, I also subscribed to the local newspaper, The Desert Sun, a division of Gannett Company, Inc., the United States’ largest newspaper publisher. I put a hold on my subscription when I went home to Pittsburgh in mid-February with no problem, but when I attempted to restart delivery upon my return to California in March, it was a different story. First day: No newspaper, called the circulation department, received a nice apology and a promise to remedy the situation. Second day: No newspaper, called the circulation department and cancelled my subscription.

Some say the print newspaper industry is dying a slow death. Circulation numbers are falling, some newspapers have gone out of business, others cut frequency of print or resorted to online-only distribution. Members of senior management are pulling their hair out trying to survive, while their companies are losing subscribers like me because they can’t handle a simple address change or vacation stop/start.

Think about your business. Are you unaware of lost existing or potential new business? Where are the “touch points” in your business where your company contacts your customers? Look past your sales force and customer service. Who else is talking to your customers?

Your delivery drivers contact your customers at their place of business each time you ship an order; considering online, fax, or automated ordering, your driver may be the only contact your company has with a customer for weeks at a time. Your drivers are more than truckers — they are ambassadors for your brand. It’s important for them to understand this factor and for you to ensure they are well-prepared to be in a customer-facing environment.

Do you train your drivers on how to interact with customers, and how to handle problems that might arise? Do your drivers understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality regarding your business and customers? Consider providing uniforms to your drivers so they look professional, or at the very least, enforce a dress code. Your warehouse staff should have similar training for interacting with will-call customers. Let your operation’s team members know that their job is more than handling produce, it’s also helping to maintain and grow your customer base.

Administrative staff also can have critical touch points with customers. An abrasive or condescending cashier may cause a C.O.D. customer to take their business down the street rather than subject themselves to being mistreated. Accounts-receivable personnel interact with customers as a regular course of business. It’s important that they too understand they are representing you, and that their interactions with a customer must remain courteous and respectful.

Your best efforts to grow your customer base and drive revenue may not be enough if every level of your organization doesn’t understand the importance of customer service, and it’s up to senior management to make sure each individual recognizes how essential they are to the company’s success.

Alan Siger is chairman of Siger Group LLC, offering consulting services in business strategy, logistics, and operations to the produce industry. Prior to selling Consumers Produce in 2014, Siger spent more than four decades growing Consumers into a major regional distributor. Active in issues affecting the produce industry throughout his career, Siger is a former president of the United Fresh Produce Association.