In customer service, first impressions are the key

Friday, November 1, 2002

With the advent of more powerful computers and more robust phone systems, more and more companies across America are finding new and innovative ways not to deal with their customers. You can call into almost any major corporation in America and, almost without exception, your call will be answered by an "auto attendant." After navigating through menu after menu, you may or may not ever speak to a live human being. In many cases, hold times can run more than a half an hour. I respect that companies can save money through automated services, but there are times when you need to speak to an actual person, and it can be very difficult. As a paying customer, don't you have a right to good customer service? That's not always the case.

I believe that any company that takes money from a customer in exchange for a service has a moral and ethical duty to provide that customer the best service within their means. I further believe that the rule of thumb for customer service is to treat your customers the way that you want to be treated. There was a time in America when this concept was widely practiced, but in this day and age, customer service seems to be on the decline. I get very frustrated when, as a paying customer, I call into a business to ask a simple question and I get caught in "voice mail hell." It irks me even further that I am paying them for this abuse! We have all been there.

In the security industry there is much talk of attrition. Everyone is trying to control attrition. I don't think that anybody would argue that customer service is the leading attrition trigger. When a customer has a problem, they expect the company to care about them and respond accordingly. If a security company cannot provide a decent level of customer service, their clients will go elsewhere. This is a base concept that is at the root of many a company's demise. There is no question that poor customer service compounds attrition. It seems that too often security companies develop ultra aggressive marketing strategies, but fail to factor in customer service. There is nothing wrong with being desirous of growth, but companies should not forget who ultimately pays their salaries. There is way too much competition in the security market to forsake your customers and expect to keep them.

The one area that companies really need to focus on is telephone answering. Assuming that their phones are answered by live people, companies need to make sure they have hired the right people for the job. This is paramount to any company's overall success. I have found that, in many cases, companies regularly hire anybody that can fog on a mirror to answer their phones. I once attended a sales class where the instructor told us that he referred to his receptionists as "directors of first impressions." He regularly trained them on how to answer the phone, and he was adamant that they be friendly and enthusiastic with callers. I took a lesson from him and immediately met with all of our phone receptionists. I instructed them on the importance of their jobs, and how to properly answer the phones and deal with customers. We really paid closer attention to how they represented our firm over the phone and it served us well.

In reality, the phone receptionist will form the impression of a company more than almost any one other employee. The way they answer the phone and deal with customers has a direct impact on sales and customer retention. Customers and prospects will be immediately impressed by friendly, helpful receptionists. If these folks are rude over the phone, they can actually run off good customers and potential prospects. If a company takes too long to answer the phone, or does a poor job of answering, the prospect might write them off and call the next company. It is a huge price to pay for something so easily controlled. I always recommend owners to call their own company and see how well their staff is doing. Are your receptionists good "directors of first impressions?" Are your calls answered immediately? Are your callers frequently being put on hold? These are issues that need to be addressed and monitored.

What many companies fail to realize is that customers are more than just random numbers in a business plan, they are the company's bread and butter. All companies need to make sure that they can respond to a customer's needs. There will always be circumstances when a company will have a lapse in service due to circumstances beyond their control. Employees get sick, computers crash, phone lines go down. These eventualities can be excused, but overall, I believe companies must service their customers to the best of their ability. Would you expect less from a company with which you were proposing to do business? Do you currently hold your company to the same standard you demand from your vendors?

In the final analysis, the true merit of a company is determined by how well they service their clients. Companies that market well and provide good service will likely be long-term players with low customer attrition. To all the security companies out there who service their clients in the same day when called, or who otherwise make every effort to provide service as soon as possible, I applaud you. To security companies out there who can not even service a client within two weeks, I urge you to revisit your business model and focus on what is really important; your customers. Your company does not exist without them.

Mark Matlock is vice president of sales and marketing for United Central Control in San Antonio. He can be reached at