To stand out from the crowd, you need great customer service.
Really great customer service.
Once upon a time Marks & Spencer was famous for its customer service. Everyone knew you could take something back if there was a problem with it. Or even if you’d just changed your mind. It was a unique selling point for them.
Sure, some people pushed it a bit far, but for the majority of decent well-behaved customers it was a comfort to know there’d be no embarrassing stand-off if there was a problem. As a result M&S commanded fantastic customer loyalty. Bending a little to accommodate the customer, brought the rewards back to them in spades.
Pretty soon other retailers were eyeing-up this customer goodwill and wanting the same for their own business. The big names on the High Street caught up and M&S no longer had a USP, meaning the bar had been raised for everyone. You could argue that these high levels of customer expectations makes things hard for the retailer or wholesaler, but you’d largely be wasting your breath. The goalposts have moved, the consumer wins.
And the service levels customers get from M&S, Boots, Tesco, etc., they have come to expect from the merchant and wholesale end of the market. No longer can you afford your trade counter to be a place for trades to hang out, but off-putting to the general public. We all now expect a decent standard of store layout, nicer fittings and slicker point-of-sale systems, more akin to the retail experience. Here too the bar has been raised.
You still need good product knowledge, but now that’s your baseline. To stand out from the crowd, you need great customer service. Really great customer service. And one of the ways you can achieve this is by knowing your customers well: what kind of work they specialise in, their buying patterns, their favourite products, the problems they’re trying to solve.
The businesses of Amazon, Apple, Dell and Tesco – some of the most powerful brands in the world – are built on vast customer databases. They know more about your spending and preferences than you’d care to admit. Some of the ‘You might be interested in these…’ suggestions on my own Amazon home page can be uncannily accurate. These big organisations are now almost database companies, who happen to sell products as well. That’s how seriously they take data.
So what can you do? To learn more about your customers, you need a system, probably some form of Customer Relationship Management system (CRM). Most of us deal with too many people, from too many organisations, to reliably hold all the information you need in your head. Plus everyone in your organisation needs to be able to draw upon the knowledge you hold.
Now if you’re thinking CRM sounds too fancy, and all you need is to hold a series of notes about customers, congratulations, you’re already using a CRM! Even better if you have some way of triggering a diary action from your customer notes. And if you can send letters, emails, tenders, specifications, product literature, etc., you’re probably 90% of the way there.
Don’t let anyone tell you this stuff is hard. It’s mostly just common sense, sometimes a bit of software cleverness, and a little bit of discipline. Getting started is easy, cover the basics first. Take on Amazon another year!
You already know what’s best for your business — it’s normally just a question of having the time to put all the good ideas into place.
Steve Riley looks after Communications for Progressive Solutions, developers of the bisTrack software for builders’ merchants and other construction suppliers.