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04/19/2010

What Is Your Level of Customer/Client Service?


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One of the companies that has been the most successful at marketing its products and providing the highest level of customer service is the supermarket chain Stew Leonard’s (aka “the world’s largest dairy store”). Stew’s mantra is etched in stone at the entrance to each of his stores. It states, “Rule #1 – The customer is always right. Rule #2 – If the customer is ever wrong, reread rule #1.” I wonder how many of you agree that the customer is always right. How many feel that sometimes the customer should be informed that he or she is not right and the reason why?

The applicability of Stew’s mantra depends on the type of business you are running and what you are selling. If you are in a retail business with low markups and high volumes, it doesn’t cost very much to adopt this policy. If, however, you are in a low-volume (high-ticket-item) business or a service business, it may be very costly to adopt this policy. For these organizations, I believe that if the business owner adopts a slightly different policy and philosophy, he or she will be more successful.

The policy I recommend is that the customer or client deserves the benefit of the doubt, if there is one. Furthermore, customers deserve our undivided attention when we address their problems or concerns. We should endeavor to satisfy the customer’s request even if it seems somewhat unreasonable, as long as we are not taking a financial beating in the process. We must weigh the cost of losing a customer against the cost of maintaining such a taxing relationship. You may discover that it will cost you more in the long run to maintain the relationship, and perhaps it would be wise not to give in to an unreasonable request now, if it will establish a precedent.

On the other hand, if you have a client who is prone to requests that continually increase the cost of servicing his or her account, there are ways to reasonably pass those costs on to the client (unless you are specifically regulated against levying additional fees). If you are in a service business, you may not track the individual costs of servicing each one of your accounts, so you may not realize the negative impact that more demanding customers can have on the overall productivity and throughput of your staff. You may want to try to track such costs for a trial period to determine if there are any “high maintenance” accounts that monopolize the time and energy of your staff.

Printers typically charge extra for “rush” jobs which require their staff to work overtime. If you are continually being asked by a handful of customers to deliver a higher level of service than is typically provided in your line of business (by your competitors), I believe you have the right to demand a surcharge or additional fee on top of your usual fee.

There may be occasions, however, when a client’s demands become unruly and over the top. Such demands may be exacerbated by an abusive attitude. You’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule: 80% of your problems come from 20% of your customers. In some of these cases, it may be more prudent to terminate the relationship with your “difficult” customer or client. However, this must be done very diplomatically. If you make the choice to “fire” your customer or client, you need to end the relationship as amicably as possible. Customers do talk to one another and to other potential customers. In addition, you never know when burning a bridge results in eliminating your only way home.

–Michael Herz, CPA, MBA

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