Tag Archives: Customer Service Articles

Simon Says: the Verbose Caller

By Elaine Senecal/Illustrated by Chris Lewis

Simon Says - October 2003Do you know this caller? This is the caller that doesn’t take a breath between words, the verbose caller!

Verbose — talkative, wordy, longwinded, rambling rose.

For industry professionals, it is essential to instruct your representatives how to handle the verbose caller. It may seem a small thing, until you consider how important excellent customer service skills are to your company’s reputation, or how your company is paid for that call. Either way it can be costly. That’s why it is so important to set clear guidelines for your agents.

Think about these elements when setting those guidelines:

– Is this call billed per minute or per call?

o The answer could determine the rest of the story.

– Keep in mind that the caller knows what they want to say before they call.

o Many times, these callers have practiced what they want to say several times and have even told their friends.

– Until the caller has his or her say, the caller will not feel well served.

o The agent should reply with an occasional “I see” or “I understand” to convey empathy, which is what these callers require.

– Agents who cut these callers off, even with the correct answer, make verbose callers feel as though the agent is not interested in their problems.

o Verbose callers will start at the beginning again, prolonging the call even further.

– Each caller’s situation or issue is unique to that individual.

o Listening actively will resolve the call sooner and keep the caller pleased.

So how do your agents to handle a Rambling Rose?

[From Connection MagazineOctober 2003]

Simon Says: Avoid Jargon

By  Elaine Senecal; Illustration by Chris Lewis

Simon Says - Sept 2003ACD, DID and CRT – just as bewildering as “10-76 with acutely hypertensive on board experiencing extreme diaphoresis.”

How important is it to understand that our clients and their customers are not equipped with a jargon translator? Jargon is specialized technical, mechanical or other terminology characteristic of a particular subject or industry.

We strive to present ourselves as professionals on behalf of the companies or organizations we represent. Using jargon in conversation with callers is confusing to them and erodes their confidence in us. Let’s not forget, not all of our clients or their customers have had the opportunity to step inside a call center and would have no real understanding of the terminology or technology used.  In the illustration, the representative should have simply repeated to the caller that he had reached “ABC Books” or the call center name.

Every call could be a potential client or a new customer for our client. You never know which of your representatives may be talking to a decision maker who may be evaluating your services.

[From Connection MagazineSeptember 2003]

Customer Since 1978

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

It was an emotional moment for me. After proudly carrying and using a Shell gasoline credit card for more than 20 years, I had just canceled it and was in the process of cutting it up. Not that I was angry or upset with Shell, but it no longer made sense to carry their card. You see, Shell, in conjunction with Chase Manhattan, had launched the Shell Master Card. If I used it for my Shell gasoline purchases, I would receive five percent off my fuel expenditures on my next statement. For all non-gas purchases, I would earn a one percent rebate on future gasoline. Therefore, I could use the card for more than just gas and get discounts, too. In comparison, my old trusty Shell gas card was an absolute antique. The only practical thing to do was to cancel it.

How did this long-term relationship with Shell start? It was 1978. I was attending electronics school and found myself changing jobs often and moving just about as frequently. During one such transition of both employment and abode, I found myself on the other side of town, far away from the gas stations whose credit card I carried. However, there was a Shell station around the corner from my ramshackle apartment, one down the street from the TV station where I worked, and another next door to the school I was attending. Add to this a gas shortage, skyrocketing prices, and Shell’s tendency to not only have gas, but to be one of the less expensive options. This led to an easy decision to get a Shell credit card. It all began due to practicality, convenience, and frugality.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I finished school, got a “real” job, and moved again. To my delight, there were Shell gas stations both near the office and close to my new home. Soon thereafter, I married and it was a simple matter to order a second card for my wife. In the years that followed, through job changes and relocations, there always seemed to be a Shell gas station nearby. A habit was formed. By then, even at times when Shell didn’t have the lowest prices, little thought was given to going somewhere else. (This is a lesson for anyone selling a commodity product or service: availability, convenience, and consistency produce long-term customers.)

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when the Shell Master Card was introduced. At first, I viewed their offer with skepticism, but there didn’t seem to be a downside. I could continue my Shell gasoline habit, reduce my overall gas costs, and have a more versatile card. We applied for the card and begin using it immediately. Even so, I anxiously awaited the first statement, worried about a hidden snag or unanticipated caveat. None appeared, just my rebate to be applied to next month’s gas charges. Still the cynic, I cautiously anticipated my second statement. Was there some fine print to let them wiggle away from the result I expected? No. The rebate occurred exactly as indicated and for the amount promised.

Even so, my old Shell card remained in my wallet – just in case. Finally, after a year of non-use, I realized the time had come to throw aside any emotional connection to my long-term companion. It was time to cancel the card. I glanced one last time at the words I had grown to delight in – “customer since 1978” – and cut the card into pieces.

Soon the Shell Master Card was used for all our household purchases and the ensuing rebates grew. Things went well for quite some time. Then a surprise came on our statement, a $29 late fee. My wife, Candy, called Chase Manhattan to inquire. Since our payment history was stellar and Candy can be most persuasive, it was a trivial matter to get the charge removed. We were admonished to mail the payment earlier in order to avoid future late fees.

The next month, Candy mailed our payment five days before the due date. Again, another $29 late fee appeared. This time she called to complain. “We don’t care when you mailed your payment nor do we consider the postmark,” came the arrogant reply. “We only look at the date we post your payment.” Apparently, this was a change in their policy. Plus it seemed a bit despotic, especially considering that our payment was applied eight days after it was mailed. “But we have no control over when you process our check,” Candy countered. The agent’s response was quick and terse, “We always post payments on the day they are received.” No amount of pleading or cajoling could get the late fee removed a second time. The complaint was escalated and soon the only remaining recourse was to submit our concern in writing.

Our letter of complaint was submitted as instructed and a series of automated written responses from Chase Manhattan followed. The last one promised the company would “notify (us) of our findings as soon as they become available.” That was nine months ago. There have been no further communications from them about this matter.

Since the late fees were exceeding our rebates, we stopped using the Shell Master Card and begin buying our gasoline using an existing Visa card. This afforded us a new level of flexibility since there was no longer any need to continue our routine of looking for a Shell sign. We could also shop for the lowest-priced gas. (When we used the Shell Master Card, the rebate would more than offset any higher price we paid for their gas.)  It soon got to the point that we were seldom going to Shell.

Over the past 24 years, I estimate that we have spent about $20,000 on Shell gas. Assuming that our future gas consumption will remain constant and projecting that prices will increase, we could likely spend another $30,000 on gasoline in our lifetimes. In line with this projection, a $50,000 lifetime customer and $30,000 in future business was lost due to a $29 late fee and the policies supporting it.

What are the conclusions we can draw from this experience?

The first is to be careful in pursuing strategic alliances. Yes, this is a business trend and, when properly done, it is a great way to retain clients and obtain new ones. I am sure that Shell saw these benefits, which is why they formed a relationship with Chase. The failure in their strategy is that they relinquished interaction with their patrons to Chase. Chase did not view me as a $20,000 customer or foresee a $50,000 lifetime value; they likely saw me only as an unprofitable credit card holder (since we always pay the entire balance each month and, until the end of our relationship, continually paid on time). Hence, when forming any kind of marketing, cross-promotion, or reciprocal business relationship, make sure you retain control over your clients; don’t leave such a critical element to someone else.

The second lesson is about policies. Certainly Chase’s policy to track late fees and interest charges by the date posted is practical and easy to follow (as well as being self-serving), but is it fair? Care must always be given to ensure that policies and procedures balance the needs of the company with the best interests of the client.

Lastly, consider your staff. The agents Candy talked to did not have the latitude to credit a late fee more than one time. Apparently, their supervisors didn’t either, nor did the managers. Yes, there is a place for rules and policies, but to make them absolute and intractable, unfairly handicaps agents and can ruin client relationships. The last words that a frustrated client or caller wants to hear are, “It’s our policy,” or “I can’t do that.”

Because of these problems, caused by a partner company, Shell, through no direct fault of its own, has lost me as an exclusive customer and has encouraged me to spend money with its competitors.

[Postscript: We have just received a notice from Chase stating in part, “Shell will no longer be participating with Chase in a credit card program.” Do you think that perhaps Shell has realized what I’ve just pointed out?]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2003]

How CRM is Changing Teleservices for Issuers

By Burney Simpson

[Editor’s note: the following article was written for the credit card industry, but is equally applicable to any industry or organization providing service via the telephone. It is reprinted by permission.]

The buzz has been on for customer relationship management for several years now, and its influence is growing in the industry once known simply as telemarketing. CRM is giving rise to a new breed of teleservices employee, one more skilled than the telemarketer of not so long ago.

The ubiquity of the personal computer and the rise of the Internet mean more consumers can ask questions and resolve problems without needing to talk on the phone with a company representative. And advances in the power to track and analyze customers’ actions have made data mining an essential part of any CRM system

While some experts predicted those technological changes would mean less reliance on customer service representatives at contact centers, the opposite has been true. Now, the human touch is needed more than ever to handle the tougher inquiries and complaints that the cardholder with a phone or a PC can’t resolve alone.

The telemarketing industry is finding that computers may be built to collect and sort huge amounts of data, but the human brain is often the best tool to interpret the information. Computers can’t soothe angry customers, fix vexing problems, sell something, or otherwise build the relationship and leave the client with a smile as he hangs up or logs off.

Call centers and their agents must “acquire customers and give them service, but we also have to gain loyalty and bring in more value for our clients,” says William Sims, director of investor relations at Sitel Corp., an Omaha, Neb.-based teleservices firm.

For telemarketers, that’s meant a move away from aggressive outbound sales calls and phone agents with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Instead, the industry is fielding more inbound calls from customers of card issuers and other clients, and employing a kinder, gentler agent. Asking more of the agent is leading to better compensation, though the position remains for most a temporary one until something better comes along.

Inbound calls to third-party teleservices firms working for card issuers rose 54% to 181.6 million last year from 118.2 million in 1999, according to Card Marketing’s annual telemarketing survey. The increase is based on results from 20 firms that reported calls for both years.

At the same time, the growth in outbound calling hours on behalf of issuers cooled off. Thirty-three companies reporting for both years racked up 30.9 million hours for issuers, up only 7% from 29.0 million hours in 1999.

Determining exactly how many of those inbound calls should be classified as CRM is tricky. Still, industry experts indicate that 2000 was the year that CRM became an important factor at call centers. What’s causing the growth is an increasing willingness by issuers to farm out to trusted third parties some customer service functions formerly performed exclusively in-house. For instance, some teleservices companies report that issuers have them handling billing disputes and statement queries, besides at least partial involvement in processing requests for higher credit lines.

It’s too soon to gauge the repercussions from the changes. But as CRM grows, there’s a need for a new type of rep who can not only listen but also can use email and the Web to serve customers. What used to be a customer service representative is evolving into an eCSR.

Today, the eCSR has to juggle ways of dealing with customers. Phone skills are a given. In addition, the eCSR must be able to send back to the customer the proper email response to a question. And with websites placing red ‘help’ buttons on selected pages, customers can request immediate interaction with an eCSR. Once connected, the rep can use online ‘chat’ to engage the customer. If more service is needed, the customer can provide a phone number and the rep can call back.

“Agents have to be able to multitask – deal with email, sometimes [use Web] chat, sometimes live voice,” says Robert Schuman, president of Contact America Inc.

Schuman estimates that 20% of the La Jolla, Calif.-based telemarketer’s business is devoted to customer relationship management. And this year’s inbound calls for card issuing clients appear likely to double last year’ total.

A great eCSR, Schuman says, “must have people skills, analytical skills, show common courtesy, be polite, and able to handle irate people. It takes skills to find out exactly what the real problem is.”

Simply put, it’s all about customer service, says Schuman.

This combination of technical talent and people skills doesn’t necessarily mean that call centers need better-educated personnel, the experts say. College experience is preferred, but a four-year degree isn’t required.

“It’s not an education thing. It’s work ethic. It’s believing the customer deserves respect,” says Roberta Tamburrino, president of Naperville, Ill.-based Customer Solutions Group, which specializes in call-center training and staffing. “That [the customer] should be served – not that they are a burden to the CSR’s workday. We’ve had success with high school students because they’re malleable, open minded, and eager.”

Working the Keyboard: The eCSR must know how to work a keyboard and surf the Web, she says, but these days many young people have already learned that at home.

As noted, the move to CRM has calling centers handling requests that issuers used to keep in house. Schuman says that privacy has been the top concern for cardholders in 2001. Card issuers as well as every other financial institution in the first half [of 2001] mailed out millions of privacy policies to comply with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that took effect July 1.

“They get their [policy] statements and call the 800 number on their bill,” Tamburrino says. Often, the calls are going to a teleservices company rather than to the issuer.

Charge disputes and requests for higher limits also have become common. Call centers don’t have the authority to make a change, but they can email a form that tells the customer the matter is being looked into.

APAC Calling Centers of Deerfield, Ill., has become one of the largest CRM telemarketers, with inbound calls for issuers increasing from 7 million in 1999 to 31 million last year. Card issuing clients include Chase Manhattan Bank and Discover.

When hiring an eCSR, APAC prefers candidates with previous call-center experience or some college class work. The best prospect is someone with background in an APAC client’s industry.

For a card program, APAC may check with human resources at a financial services firm that recently has conducted layoffs. One major account serviced at APAC’s headquarters in suburban Chicago is Sotheby’s, the art auction house. To find a potential eCSRs for that client, APAC checks with the placement office of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hands out flyers downtown near the school and its dorms, and put ads in the school newspaper.

Job applicants are screened on the phone and must apply online. If that goes well, they take a typing and keyboard test that includes surfing the Web, says Brett Trainor, APAC’s site director at Deerfield.

“We ask them to do a Web search and find five sites,” he says. “If they succeed, it proves they know browsers.”

Then they get verbal interviews. But a quiet person in an interview may still make a great eCSR, says Trainor. “Someone can seem quiet, but you put them on the phone and they’re talkers,” he says.

Once hired, the trainee is put in the classroom to learn about the client she will be servicing and to master three to five software applications, says Claudia Diaz, an APAC account manager. That training lasts 10 to 15 days, depending on the campaign.

Meanwhile, the new reps are assigned to a calling center team with a coach. On their first full day on the floor, the reps sit in a so-called sidecar and watch teammates answer calls. Soon, they go live with the coach in a sidecar monitoring their work.

On a typical day, the center is quiet, with banners on the walls promoting APAC clients. The eCSRs are assigned to only one account each and have no minimum hourly call requirements. “This isn’t your calling center with a guy in the aisle yelling ‘Sell!'” says Trainor.

A rep’s PC has three screens. The first displays background information on the calling customer, including previous contacts, along with account data. On the second screen, nicknamed the “Dashboard,” eCSRs see a scroll of suggestions and scripts for a particular campaign or sale.

The third screen can be enabled for Web interaction with the customer. That can mean email chat. Or, if the caller allows it, the eCSR can figuratively look over her shoulder to see the Web page the customer is viewing. If the call is a complaint, the eCSR may be able to “push” her to a page that resolves the issue. A savvy eCSR peruses the caller’s record of purchases and pushes her to Web pages with products she might want to buy.

Sophisticated Software: Some customers need help with the basics, such as gaining access to their own account information. During slower times, the rep answers emails. APAC offers clients the option of having customers’ emails answered within four hours or 24 hours.

The extensive interaction between customer and agent has brought a need for sophisticated software that can handle as many as six customer requests simultaneously. Indeed, so much data can be generated that it requires a sophisticated user to make sense of it all, says Ellen Arrington, managing partner at Siebel Systems, the San Mateo, Calif.-based CRM software company.

“The technology is very powerful and we have to ensure that the employee uses it effectively,” says Arrington.

That has meant more training for Sitel, one of the biggest teleservices firms serving card issuers. “We used to train (agents) in a matter of minutes. Now it can take four to five weeks,” says Sims.

Sitel’s inbound calls for issuers grew from 2.5 million in 1999 to 13 million last year, according to the CM survey. Its Internet-related revenues accounted for about 10% of its total year 2000 revenues of $760 million, says Sims. Clients include American Express Co.

The need for better-trained and more creative reps has forced telemarketers to become creative with compensation, too. The pay is better, there are more opportunities for advancement, the atmosphere at work is more relaxed, and the reps’ suggestions are respected, not ignored.

APAC pays starting eCSRs $12 to $14 an hour, twice what it pays new outbound agents. That can rise to $18 an hour.

Pay for an eCSR can reach $16 an hour at Peoria, Ill.-based Affina-The Customer Relationship Co., according to Samuel DiLiberto, director of business development. That’s $4 an hour more than agents handling the standard inbound calls earn.

In comparison, the Incoming Calls Management Association in Annapolis, Md., found in a 2000 survey that the median wage for full-time agents nationwide was $12.55 an hour. Affina offers tuition reimbursement at schools near its eight calling centers and a 401(k) retirement program. Every year it also gives its agents about $500,000 worth of the consumer electronics sold by several of its clients.

Those incentives pay off in lower turnover, says DiLiberto. “We estimate it costs us $9,000 every time we lose an agent,” he says.

Contact America’s Schuman says making eCSRs the elite agents encourages others to climb the call-center ladder. “The (agent conducting) CRM is the most highly skilled and the best paid. There is a stratum within a call center. That’s good for the business, because it helps people that want to move up.”

In some ways, APAC treats the eCSR as if he or she were on the management team serving the client. For example, agents monitor what callers say about a firm’s website and share the information with their coaches. That in turn is passed on to the client. That shows agents that their input is respected and improves morale, says Trainor.

Turnover: And they may be on to something at APAC. In an industry where annual turnover rates of 100% are not uncommon, APAC claims turnover at Deerfield has been in the 30% range.

Allowing agents to use their training to solve customers’ problems makes the job interesting and cuts down on burnout, says Schuman.

But even with those improvements, compensation could be better, says Customer Solutions’ Tamburrino. “They are still woefully underpaid,” she says. In general, agents are “people out of high school that may do it for three or four years. It’s not a career, it’s entry level.”

That may or may not change as customer relationship management evolves. But it seems clear that CRM is becoming an integral part of any marketing program for card professionals.

As the credit card and banking industries continue to consolidate, consumers may have never set foot in a branch. So the phone agent is becoming the primary connection to the issuer for many customers, says Schuman.

“Many local banks are gone,” he says. “Contact with managers and tellers is gone. For many customers the only interaction is with an ATM. The only touchpoint is through the call center. So it has to be very valuable.”

This article has been reprinted by permission from Credit Card Management, a Thomson Financial publication, July 2001 edition, copyright 2001. For reprints of this article, in its original from, contact Howard Gilbert of CCM at 212-803-8200.

[From Connection Magazine – November 2001]

Not Measuring Your Customer Service? Then You Are Not Even Close to Managing It

By David Saxby

Most companies and call centers measure success by their sales numbers but they overlook one small detail – the customer. Do you know how your customer feels about doing business with you? Do you believe companies when they say they really do care about their customers? Most people don’t believe that claim. Instead, they think businesses are not walking their talk.

The following are five tips on how to understand customers and how to measure customer service at your business or call center:

Tip Number 1: If you truly want to understand your customers, ask yourself these questions: How do you know your customers are experiencing extraordinary customer service when they use your services? If they are a new customer, will they stay with your service ? Or if they are a new project for your call center, will they return with a new project once the existing project has been completed? Do your customers tell other people about you? Are you meeting or exceeding your customers’ expectations? Are your prior customers now using the service from your competition and/or do you even know?

Tip Number 2: Mystery Shop. Hire a mystery shopping company. These companies have the ability to see your business through the eyes of your customers. The results of the mystery shop give you the feedback necessary to know what is and is not working from the customer’s point of view.

Tip Number 3: Survey your customers by direct mail: Send out an easy-to-understand questionnaire immediately after they have started using your service. They should only have to take one to two minutes to complete the questionnaire and it should come with a postage-paid return envelope.

Tip Number 4: Survey your customers via email: Email your customers an online survey to obtain their feedback. Use this feedback before you change or implement a new service. Develop a core group of customers that becomes your source of feedback for future changes.

Tip Number 5: Call your customers: Hire someone to make the calls. This will make it easier for your customers to be totally honest and it will help keep the results objective. Ask your customers what your company can do to improve its service. Long term profitability in a changing market is not solely the result of increased sales. It’s more about determining the needs of your customers and then meeting those needs. If you can’t measure customer service at your business, then you can’t manage it.

David Saxby is President of Measure-X, a training firm specializing in providing training on customer service skills and employee retention. He can be reached at 888-644-5499 or at david@measure-x.com. Check out their website at measure-x.com.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2001]

Get Personal, Even When Not Face to Face

By Paul Spiegelman

One of the surest ways to turn me into a repeat buyer is to provide excellent customer service before, during and after the sale. If I am treated well by a sales representative, receptionist or business associate, my desire to continue a relationship with that company escalates significantly.

What happens; however, when transactions take place online? How can businesses develop long-lasting, trusting relationships with people when connected not by face-to-face smiles, but by wires and satellites stretching around the globe? Perhaps not surprisingly, exceptional customer service is still the answer.

The Internet is a tool of unprecedented magnitude. It has the ability to be at consumers’ fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once online, users can get advice about healthcare, trade stocks, buy furniture or perform a myriad of other tasks. Conceivably, business can be done and money can be made while we’re sleeping.

One of its drawbacks is its impersonalization as users browse the Web anonymously from the privacy of their own home and (other than chat rooms) engage in a series of one-way email messaging. Despite its conveniences, the Internet cannot meet all needs all the time. Consumers may be seeking information that is not available in a website. They may have questions that are too pressing to wait for an email response during “regular business hours.” Or they may simply need the reassurances that only another live person can impart. What happens then? Enter “interaction:” a marriage of the accessibility of the Internet and the value of human interaction.

Humans are social beings, as well as creatures of habit…and in the case of customer service, that still means being able to speak with another human being. According to USA Today’s survey of 1,000 Internet users, 68 percent want contact with a live customer service representative, while 35 percent of those polled prefer chatting with sales reps online. The Wall Street Journal also recently reported that “what will separate the e-commerce successes from the failures will be relationships…one of the elements inherent in building these relationships is the ability to talk to a human.”

“Interaction” is a way to take advantage of the many benefits of modern technology without losing touch with what has been learned from years of business experience and examples. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the wizardry of technology and ignore the needs of our consumers, we put ourselves at a disadvantage. We must continue to evaluate customer service from the customers’ point of view taking into account that not everyone has the same comfort level with the Internet. Every online transaction canceled because a frustrated consumer cannot reach a live person is a missed opportunity. Too many missed opportunities translate into thousands, or even millions, in lost revenues.

According to Datamonitor, Web shoppers abandoned $1.6 billion in e-commerce transactions in 1998 due to lack of integrated customer service. And yet, less than 1 percent of e-commerce sites offer live customer service. Don’t let your company remain one of the 99 percent who continue to disappoint customers because of the overwhelming lack of customer service. An emerging trend to achieve optimum customer service is to integrate the Internet with a call center. Since it may be cost-prohibitive for many companies to offer an around-the-clock call center for their customers, one option many businesses are finding appealing is turning to service bureaus that specialize in live customer interaction. These bureaus offer as many solutions to companies’ needs as there are individual situations–from live operators available 24 hours a day to immediate email response to online users’ questions or concerns. As technology becomes increasingly prevalent in our culture, it is imperative that we not forget the value of relationships.

These are the bonds that turn one-time visitors into repeat customers. Ultimately, customers will remember how a company treated them, not where they interacted with it. An Internet presence provides consumers with constant access to your business that our fast paced culture demands. Live customer interaction provides those same consumers with the relationship they require. Those who figure out how to marry the two will build customer loyalty, establish relationships that allow for the cross selling of products, elevate its business above that of the competition and give themselves an almost unfair competitive advantage. Make your company one of these!

Paul Spiegelman is president of The Beryl Companies which, since 1984, has provided outsourced call center and website development services to more than 500 businesses nationwide. For more information call 800-833-2000 and ask for the marketing department. This article is a reprint with permission of CC News.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2000]

The Making of a Customer

By Peter Renton

When somebody enters your office, or calls your business for the first time, you are not trying to make a sale. You are trying to make a client. If you do that well, the sales will come later.

For example, there is a bike shop in Branford, Connecticut called Zanes Cycles. If you walk in to Zanes Cycles and you want to buy a small part for a bike, say a valve cap, which might cost you 50 cents, you walk out paying nothing. That’s right, its free.

About fifteen years ago, Chris Zane, the owner of Zanes Cycles, stopped charging customers for anything that costs less than $1. The annual cost for this extravagance, around $100. The effect on a potential customer is striking. As Chris Zane says, you should see the look on peoples faces when they find out it is free. For the tiny cost of 50 cents, Zanes Cycles can get a loyal customer for life.

Of course, a company like this that thinks long term, is also likely to have exceptional service. Zanes doesn’t disappoint. Their lifetime service guarantee is the foundation of their business. A customer came in one day with a six-year-old pump he had bought at the store that had simply worn out. Chris Zane just gave him another one. Why? Once again Zane is focused on the long-term lifetime value of each customer, and he is willing to invest $30 (the cost of the pump) in are peat customer, to ensure his or her continued patronage.

The result: “The guy has been in twice since then,” says Zane, “and has spent over $200 on accessories.” And when its time for a new bike, Zane expects to get first shot at the sale.

It is this sort of attitude that wins loyal long term repeat customers, which is one of the key reasons why Zanes Cycles has annual sales of $2.2 million, compared with an industry average of $420,000. All that from one store in Branford, Connecticut.

Its How You Treat People That Counts. Many years ago, when I was still living in Sydney, I went out for dinner at one of Sydney’s most expensive restaurants. Just out of college, I had started up a software company with a friend of mine and we went out to celebrate our first big sale after months of really hard work.

So here we were, myself and my partner, along with our girlfriends, everyone around 23 years of age, at the most exclusive restaurant in Sydney. I remember wondering, how would we be treated? We were meeting for cocktails on the 40th floor of one the hotels in downtown Sydney. We were having such a wonderful time, we lost track of the time, and we realized we were running late. I called the restaurant to let them know, and they said no problem, take as long as you like. So we did.

We finally arrived at the restaurant over an hour late for our booking. No problem, the hostess was in no hurry, and asked if we would like to have a drink at the bar before sitting down. We declined. We get to our table and there is a box of matches with my name monogrammed on the back.

They asked who would be paying for the meal, it was me, and I was given a menu with prices, no one else knew what the prices were. The service throughout the evening was superb and attentive without being overbearing. The food was absolutely fantastic, everything was perfect. We didn’t want to leave; so we didn’t. We stayed until we were the only table left in the restaurant.

No one hurried us along, their attitude really seemed to be, whatever you want is fine with us. I found out later that at this restaurant there is only one sitting per table for dinner, so guests can arrive and leave whenever they want.

Sure this was an expensive place, and some of the things they did could only be done in such an exclusive restaurant, but the thing that struck me, was the attitude of everyone. There was none of the snobbery or pompous attitude you might expect from a place like this. They were all focused on serving the customer, with providing the best possible dining experience. You got the feeling they treated us, a bunch of wide-eyed 23-year-olds, the same way they might treat a billionaire. And that is what made it one of my most memorable and enjoyable meals ever.

It is Not a Sale Until the Client is Happy. A couple of years ago, we had a first-time customer call up from the yellow pages and order some custom labels. They placed an order for just over $100 worth of labels. We printed them according to what they wanted, but when they received them they realized they had made a mistake. They called us back and apologized, and we said no problem, we will just redo them for you, at no charge.

They couldn’t believe it. They were a first time client, and I think it had a profound effect on them. Over the last two years they have ordered six more times worth around $600 in sales. Now, I’m not sure we would have received those sales had we not made such an impression by reprinting their first order free of charge. And I’m betting that there will be many more sales in the years to come.

In today’s competitive market place, if you want to build a base of loyal customers you need to do more than what is expected. It is all about doing the basics well, and then doing some little extra things for your customers. An iron-clad satisfaction guarantee is a must. All great companies not only have one, they stand by it all the time.

Then you can try some creative things that will really make the service performed by your company memorable. You have seen some examples in this article. Often it is the simple and inexpensive things that are most effective. Everything you do should revolve around complete satisfaction for your customers. If you do this correctly, the sales will come, and you will have a loyal customer base for a very long time.

Peter Renton is president of Renton’s International Stationery, Inc. Renton has a catalog of innovative products for collecting money and improving customer relationships. They can be reached at 800-365-6644 or email peter_renton@compuserve.com.

[From Connection Magazine – November 1998]