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Customer Service: Fanatics Required

Fifteen years ago I started a freelance writing business. I didn't know anyone at all.

I bought a copy of Writer's Market, found the publishing houses in midtown New York City, and cold-called company after company. Not by telephone. Just literally walked in off the street and asked for work.

Believe me when I tell you that it was a long fall from the ivory tower of the sociology department to drum up customers. But G-d smiled on me and eventually I had a business.

What I didn't know then, that I am starting to appreciate now, is that the glamorous part isn't the "look at how hard I worked" tale of getting the customer in the first place. The real achievement is in keeping them. It's all about customer service.

Recently I called on an internal customer whose job I was no longer working on. I asked if it had gone well, if there was anything I could do to help. Not because I'm such a genius at customer service but more because I'm trying to get organized. I went down the list of outstanding jobs and saw that I hadn't closed the loop on this one - hadn't asked for an after-action review or feedback.

Turned out we were in the middle of a crisis. Not a horrible nightmare of a crisis. But a glitch bad enough to give multiple people bellyaches for a good 72 hours.

Did I know what the hell I was going to do to fix it? No way. But something told me to keep pushing. To make sure that the customer was satisfied and well-served.

It is tempting to walk away from the job when your part is done, for sure. You want to say that you did your best and now it's up to them.

But the truth is, the job is not done until the customer has everything they need. Whether you are responsible for it or not.

To take this kind of attitude you have to be a complete fanatic. A lunatic, even. Because you are asking for headaches where before you had none.

So here is what is so odd to me.

If I, in my little world, have to look at customer service like this, why don't huge megabrands I buy from do the same? Instead of little "comment cards" and hyperlinked customer surveys and difficult-to-find customer service webpages that emphasize self-service - why don't they chase me down and make sure that I am happy with what I bought?

Seems like for most companies, the customer service function is treated just like an individual treats a New Year's resolution to exercise: Exciting to talk about, boring to implement, and questionable whether they can maintain it on an ongoing basis.

In a tough economy, where everyone is competing for the customer's business, and the customer expects not only instant gratification but gratification of needs never expressed - that is crazy!

Customer service is what builds the brand. It attracts the customer in the first place, maintains their loyalty, builds the brand network through word-of-mouth, and retains the customer over a lifetime.

Maybe customer service is not as exciting as proclaiming a new big win. But it is definitely lucrative. Repeat buying, upgrading, up-selling and cross-selling is the equivalent of recruiting a new customer many times over.

Everybody knows this. Management gurus stand on their soapboxes and proclaim its importance. Nevertheless, and despite all the fanfare and hoo-ha about service, many companies don't even bother to do a good job of customer service. Instead they see the function as:

* Generally, a pain in the rear – literally a source of nothing but problems.

* Something that "anyone" can do, as long as they are conscious (and sometimes not even fully that…if you have ever faced the typing lag when interacting with a "live chat" operator)

* Difficult to do well because customers are impossible to satisfy, frequently abusive, and sometimes even make complaints up to get compensation;

* Nearly impossible to measure or generate visible ROI from; and

* Difficult to keep people excited about over the long term – especially when they get paid lousy wages to listen to all these complaints, get no respect form the rest of the company, and are monitored and measured to the enth degree.

Why do companies look down on customer service?

Two problems.

#1 is elitism. Customer service is a grassroots function. A "people" function. Not elite at all. And too many leaders, the people who get paid to run the company, are distant from the ordinary folks and humble rabble-rousers who buy the products and services they sell.

#2 is sexism. Customer service is seen as a girl's job. Like teaching. Like nursing. Like - mothering! Not "real" work because it's "instinctive." Enough said. (Seriously - If I see one more cheesy stock photo of a happy smiling telephone operator I am going to lose my lunch.)

Not every company does a bad job with customer service. Some of them make a true art of it. The ones that do, have five practices down pat:

* Customer service is everybody's job. If somebody sees something going wrong or even potentially wrong for the customer, they ask about it.

* Complaints are treated as normal not "shocking" and the customer's unexpected expressions of need, concern, unhappiness, etc. are welcomed as feedback rather than silenced as irritating.

* There is always a "supervisor" available to resolve complaints at a higher level.

* The customer service representative provides their name and ID number at the start of the call to help the customer document the problem. Optimally a transcript of the interaction is sent, or at least detailed notes are kept for the future. The interaction obtains a case number.

* Last but not least (this list could really go on), the conversation ends with a question asked sincerely: Is there anything else I can help you with? (This can't be delivered like a line from a script - it has to be sincere.) And then there is a short survey (very short) where the customer can provide feedback on the interaction.

There is nothing degrading about serving the customer well. It doesn't feminize you to serve the customer well. What it does is bring you down to earth. Honestly, the country runs on entrepreneurship - on the obtaining and keeping of customers. This is a noble calling and it helps to make our nation and our world work better.

So be proud to be a customer service fanatic - and chase that car down the road to get their business if you have to.

Good luck!