You’re not so different

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Virtually every company I work with tell how much better they are than their competitors; particularly their larger counterparts. This is more often than not a distinction between the style of service rather than the particular product supplied.

“We are much more flexible and provide a more personal service” is the mantra of the small business.

There is no reason why this shouldn’t be true and yet my experience is that is isn’t as big a difference as you think, in the minds of your customers.

The perception of being agile and flexible is often just that; a perception. I know because I have talked to a fair few of my client’s customers as a starting point for my work with them over the years. The brutal feedback is often that, whilst well intentioned, the levels of service are often lacking. In many cases they stay a customer purely because of the loyalty they have to you or one of your team, as opposed to staying because they get great service.

Your customers want the right product, of the right quality, when they need it and at the right price.  More importantly, they want it in a consistent manner so that they get what they expect. When things do go wrong (which from time to time they inevitably do) a customer simply expects you to resolve the problem and keep them appraised of what is happening.

All sound pretty simple so far?

You are not well placed to judge how good you are at servicing your customers. You see lots of well meaning, sometimes frantic action to get jobs done, non of which is visible to your customer. How good the service you give is can only be measured as THEY SEE IT, not how YOU SEE IT. Their expectation is formed by your marketing, the way you sell, how you deliver and how you manage the relationship with them throughout their life cycle as a customer.

Problems arise when you don’t understand what sort of service the customer expects or that you fail to delivering against that expectation.

Understanding customer expectations is about asking them, not just, how good your service is, but how you could make their lives even easier and happier. Customer surveys often fail to ask the important question: what could we do to make our service even better?

If you haven’t had a service related conversation with a meaningful sample of your customers recently, make it a priority, or even better, get me to do it.

Once you have understood your customer’s expectation it is all about execution. This is about two things; people and process.

Get your processes right

The word process often seems to feel like the complete opposite of agile and personal; but well designed processes are key to balancing consistency and efficiency. Without good systems and processes you are at the mercy of the fallibility of people memories and their personal choices about what constitutes good service.

80% of the actions and transactions moving through your business should be dealt with by process. It is only those 20% that should require discretion and individual consideration. This is true whether you are constructing installing security systems or serving Thai food.

A quick word on systems

Just last week I met the very busy owner of a £3m business who had refused to buy a CRM system because it was going to cost him £150 a month. My advice to him was simple; ‘with that type of thinking you can pretty much expect your business to not grow and your involvement in it to remain unchanged, forever’.

Every business needs four key systems

Marketing and sales systems to create leads and to guide prospects through a journey towards a buying decision
Fulfilment systems to deliver your product or service to the customer. These are often regarded as the most bespoke requirement you have. However there are now affordable, highly configurable industry specific packages to meet most needs
Customer Relationship Management systems are the means of capturing customer information; standing data, transaction history and interactions. If you don’t want to look like you are ‘out of control’ you need this information at your fingertips when you are in dialogue with customers.
Finance systems enable you to invoice and collect money from customers, manage company outgoings and produce meaningful company financial information

There simply is no excuse for poor systemisation anymore. Cloud based computing has brought leading edge capabilities into the hands of the small business owner. For around £500 a month virtually any business could operate leading edge systems across all four key process domains. No excuses. Get on with it.

So this brings us to people.

Business is easy. The involvement of people makes it difficult

I had to do some analysis for my boss at Tesco that required me to review the accounts for the four main food retailers in the UK. One of the things I noticed was that every one of the Chairman statements claimed that ‘we have the best people in the industry’.

So at least three of them were lying.

Given that world class systems are available to everyone for ridiculously affordable prices the calibre of people in your business really is the principle point of differentiation.

The quality, and performance, of the people in your company is your responsibility. You get to choose who you recruit, retain, promote and remove. As a company owner or director it is your single biggest responsibility. Remember, you get the people you deserve and the behaviours that you tolerate.

There are three dimensions to the performance of anyone in your company;

Technical ability and knowledge. The ability to perform the tasks whether it be measuring bills of quantity, installing swimming pools, processing orders etc.

Personal leadership skills. This is the individual’s ability to show up, make decisions and organise themselves to take focussed action

Interpersonal skills. These are the abilities of a team member to interact effectively with customers, suppliers, colleagues, bosses and their team members

Now here is the rub. In most cases people have the requisite technical skills and knowledge. If they don’t possess them and can’t be trained to acquire them, they don’t tend to last very long in a role. Most challenges arise from personal leadership or interpersonal deficits.

When it comes to differentiating your company in the eyes of customers it will almost always be in terms of how your people behave with them. It is the commitments that are followed through, the extra mile actions, the reliability, friendliness and helpfulness of everyone the customer comes into contact with. This is what makes you different and truly performant in the eyes of your customers.

This means that you, and anyone managing people within your company, need to
·     set the right tone and example through their personal conduct
·     recruit people that fit the model of employee you are looking for
·     invest in the training and coaching of your people to ensure they are able to operate at a high level across all three dimensions of performance
·     be willing, when all else fails, to let the wrong employees go