Focusing on customer service can help navigate a tough economic climate.
By Abbie Yarger
Businesses are doing all they can to stay afloat in today’s economic environment, from layoffs to budget cuts. One thing they shouldn’t cut is customer service. Creating and sustaining good customer service in tough economic times can give businesses an advantage over their competitors, which can generate profits and build strong relationships between new and returning customers and companies.
Define customer service
Dana Russikoff, director of sales and marketing for Rodan Enterprises LLC (makers of SureShade), Philadelphia, Pa., adopts Wal-Mart cofounder Sam Walton’s view of customer service, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
Every business has methods of keeping this boss happy, and some tactics are universal. Common strategies include educating customers on products and services, informing customers of changes to an order, making suggestions to improve orders, providing goods and services in a timely manner, and always following through on a job. Ultimately, these approaches boil down to one key factor: communication.
Spread the word
The initial contact with a customer, whether it’s via e-mail, phone, fax, letters sent by mail, or face-to-face conversation, is crucial to forging a strong relationship.
“From that first contact, we try to be open and honest and keep the client in the loop,” says Jeri Perillo, Custom Canvas of Charleston Inc., North Charleston, S.C.
Once initial contact with the customer is made, it’s important to communicate clearly and concisely and adapt to how the customer prefers to communicate. Many fabricators note that it’s not the actual way in which you reach customers, but what you say and how you say it that’s most important.
“I think a lot of customer service becomes whether the customer likes you or not,” says Steve Griffith, owner of Marine Tops Unlimited and Xtreme Seal LLC, both located in Madison, Wis. “If you don’t have a personality or you don’t like to talk to people then it’s really hard to convince somebody to spend money with you.”
Boat shows and trade events are places to form personal relationships, but in today’s world, businesses need to be Internet-savvy to stay relevant.
Web sites provide a setting in which businesses can attract new customers, while updating current customers on new products and services. Through a company web site, customers can easily receive quotes, make electronic payments and view photos of products.
“The web provides a visual for the customer, and a lot of times it’s easier to see than it is to verbally explain to somebody,” says Justin Jones, president of Custom Covers LLC, Salt Lake City, Utah, of talking customers through jobs based on online photos.
Get positive results
Although technology can help make a sale, it is still up to the business to execute a successful job. One of Jones’ success stories happened when a customer needed help installing the track and template for a hard top. Jones had worked with the man before, but this project produced a result beyond his expectations.
“It gave me the warm fuzzies because he’s given me a number of referrals since then,” Jones says. “I would now consider him one of my friends.”
Griffith had a similar encounter with a customer after two years of convincing him to have Marine Tops build his canvas enclosure. A year and a half later, the customer returned to Griffith, but on different terms.
“Because of the customer-based relationship we built, I call him on the phone and ask him for help, and he comes over,” Griffith says. “He’s like a part-time employee.”
Perillo also had a satisfying experience with an existing customer. The man called Perillo to say he would be passing through the area and needed a tender cover for his new yacht. Perillo and a coworker met the man on the dock and said they would have the cover ready by the time the man left town.
“He called us later that afternoon and invited us to dinner because he appreciated the customer service so much,” Perillo says.
Can’t get no satisfaction
Despite positive experiences, every business has its share of challenges. The difficulties often present opportunities from which to learn and grow and to prepare for possible future problems.
tion. Once Griffith built the project, he discovered the large panels were difficult to store. Griffith modified the panels and provided a storage bag, which proved to be an inexpensive solution that made the customer happy.
Jones also had to alter a project after a customer explained he didn’t want the convertible top Custom Covers built for him. What the customer actually meant was a bimini top, which Custom Covers made to make up for the miscommunication. Jones now takes a different approach when planning projects.
“We’ll take a photo of a boat and use a computer program to draw the way we expect things to look,” he says.
But solutions aren’t always easy to find. “Sometimes there are problems that cannot be solved,” Russikoff says. “If that’s the case, it’s our job to educate the customer as to why.”
When miscommunication occurs in the early stages of a project, the company may decide to refer the job to someone else. In a worst-case scenario, a refund may be issued to a customer who is unhappy with the services they received.
Keep your head above water
The economy presents challenges of its own to the marine fabrication industry. Optimistic fabricators point out that boat owners are investing more in what they already have.
“People aren’t out buying new boats, so they’re going to be putting a little more money into the boat that they’ve got,” Jones says.
To find these people, companies are accepting smaller jobs they might not have taken in the past. “It’s time to get creative and be flexible,” Russikoff says.
Fabricators are also traveling farther to accommodate customers in the most convenient and timely way possible.
“Now more than ever you need to be responsive to every need,” says Dennis Bueker, branch manager of Tri Vantage LLC in Cleveland, Ohio. “Every order must be shipped the same day, every phone call returned promptly, every sample request or quote done immediately.”
Although a bad economy can drive down sales and profits, it can drive quality and service up. This leads to stronger relationships with customers, and better customer service. In an unpredictable world, the basic principles of customer service remain the same and can help businesses make it through even the toughest times.