The notion of looking after your customer base is a real old chestnut. Every vendor and reseller organisation should have a strategy, if not a budget, for an after-sales service which will encourage customers to stick with them rather than go running off to another supplier when they need more kit.
But sadly, these days it?s not enough just to be aware of your customers? needs. In a market where customer poaching is rife, you may have to look after them like children, nurture them, cherish them and even indulge them on occasion.
?Every distributor and reseller is aware of how important the customer is and everyone claims to provide the best customer care,? says Joe Breen, customer services manager at Ideal Hardware. ?These days you have to offer such a high level of customer service that it can be regarded as a value-added service. Customers really have to get something out of the care you offer.?
This view is echoed by Carol Wyatt, director of the business solutions group at Bull Information Systems. She says: ?Customers really expect to get something for nothing, and unless you can give them something that they really value, they?ll look around for another supplier that gives them more.?
Breen says: ?With most products and solutions being fairly similar, the difference between suppliers is less dependent on the goods and more on the service. You really have to make the customers feel special.?
With 4,500 trade customers and a product portfolio which has some unique elements but is mainly standard distie stuff, Ideal has to work to make each customer feel important. Troy Leacock, business development manager at Networks UK, says: ?Managing several thousand customers is very difficult, almost impossible. That?s why we try to keep the overall number of our customers down and select those that require a broad range of products and services.?
Few resellers have a mind to reject their customers because too many is hard to handle, and Ideal would disagree that having several thousand is a disadvantage. But Breen says: ?The trick is to make each of them feel special, and to do that you have to have customised services. It?s no good having a blanket customer care operation with the same service being offered to everyone. They all want and need different things.?
You can?t give all your customers everything they want, says Breen (?you have to be realistic and you are running a business after all?), but you can do a lot to make sure that what they get is what they need.
?We have a basic shopping list of customer services, but we tailor it to suit each client. Customer care is dead these days. What we have now is customer intimacy. You have to get close to each one, because often customer care is your only differential.?
Ideal relies almost entirely on feedback from the different departments of the organisation, and a file on every client is held in a central database. Breen says: ?We co-ordinate information from the telesales team, credit control, technical support and anyone else who has contact with a customer. We try to tailor our care so each customer gets the aspects of our service portfolio they want.?
Breen adds that it is important to offer technical support and other post-sales services free of charge. ?You can?t seriously charge if you are trying to make customer care your differential,? he says.
This can be difficult for resellers, which often survive on the revenue earned from consultancy and services around the central solution, but Breen says customers are expecting more and more. ?Customers are so sophisticated these days ? customer satisfaction has to be a given,? he says. ?Now you have to exceed their expectations.?
Peter Scatchard, European marketing manager at Hitachi Europe, says the issue is understanding individual customers? needs and delivering on them. ?Surprisingly, many firms still deliver on what they think their customers want, and don?t actually listen to what their customers are saying.?
As a mainly trade supplier to assemblers and solution providers, Hitachi believes its main priority is to take responsibility for stock. Scatchard says: ?Our long-term aim is to help the customers run their businesses. In the short term we do that by agreeing realistic expectations regarding stock. We don?t expect them to hold much and instead deliver on a just-in-time basis, which helps them streamline their processes.?
Customer care has become a meaningless byword, but it is difficult to come up with a new angle. ?You can?t reinvent the wheel, and the trouble is that everyone knows about the hub, spokes, tyres and bearings,? says Scatchard. ?Offering the standard checklist of customer care services is not good enough any more. You have to tailor the wheel to suit each customer.?
Wyatt agrees, adding that suppliers can offer practical business advice and experience from which customers can profit. She says: ?Many organisations, like Bull, have been through restructuring and other changes, and our experiences may be useful to our customers. If they can learn from us we are happy to pass on the benefit.?
Wyatt also believes that suppliers have an obligation to help their customers run their businesses more efficiently. Aside from the obvious vested interest ? a customer that goes belly-up is no good to you ? the better a customer is doing, the more it will spend with you. Wyatt says: ?We have a new initiative aimed at our top 60 direct accounts, which often have resellers involved in the arrangement, in which we offer business support and advice.
?We are trying to take the relationships with our customers further towards being real partnerships rather than straightforward customer and supplier arrangements.?
One way Bull sets out to do this is by offering a business line which its customers can call and ask any question about running a business in certain sectors. ?We have operators with local authority knowledge, for example, and can advise customers who are working in that area about legislation or other business queries. It has to be more than just answering queries about product specifications and delivery.?
Christopher Lochhead, who is responsible for strategic marketing with the Vantive Corporation, a US company in the process of recruiting resellers in the UK, says: ?Basically, you have to remember that customers want to do business with those suppliers that are easiest to trade with, so do anything you can to make the experience pleasant and worthwhile.?
One of the first steps to this end, says Lochhead, is to create a support team and invest in training them. ?Customer care is the new battleground,? he says, ?and unless you have the troops properly trained to deliver the right information, you will ultimately erode your bottom line.?
Tiny Computers, a desktop PC retain chain, has recently increased its support staff by 15, bringing the number to 80. Sales and marketing director Martin Breffitt says that response time is the key for a business like Tiny Computers. ?It is unacceptable if any of our customers have to wait in a telephone grid-lock,? he says.
The customer wait time can still average about five minutes. Breffitt says this is an improvement on the previous average wait time for technical support. ?Our customer service desk answers all calls within three minutes,? he says.
Many would claim that these figures are still unacceptable, although Tiny Computers receives between 800 and 1,000 calls a day on a diverse range of subjects. ?The computer industry has an appalling record for customer support,? admits Breffit.
The best way resellers can improve their customer services, according to Leacock, is simply to know their customers and understand what they are trying to achieve. Whether a box-shifter or high-level solution provider, this is the basic tenet which ensures success.
?We learned our lesson the hard way. We had one customer that placed a big order elsewhere, just because they did not know we specialised in another piece of technology they were looking for. They didn?t know we were a leader in that field and we didn?t know they were even considering adopting that technology. It was a big order and it was a big lesson. Since then, we have improved our contact with customers so that we know what they are doing and they know what we are doing.?
Leacock says customers are different from prospects and more receptive to calls to check on progress. ?If you get a call out of the blue asking for a few moments of your time, you are inclined to be brusque and not bother. But if it is one of your suppliers trying to improve their service, you are more likely to give a few minutes.?
Wyatt believes the trend towards fewer suppliers with better quality relationships has come the full circle. ?The norm was once good long-term relationships between suppliers and customers, but then with open systems people started buying from all over the place. The trouble is that spot buying can cost more in the long run, and you miss out on the benefits of a good supplier/customer relationship.?
Now, she adds, customers are beginning to value special relationships, and will stick with preferred suppliers even though sometimes it may cost a little extra. ?There is a reward for loyalty,? Wyatt says, ?even though you may not know what it is until you need it.?
Scatchard agrees. ?There is no doubt that long-term customers are looked after better than those which come and go. Loyal customers will find that they can get stock in times of shortages.?
According to Breen, most customers are looking for a courteous response but also want high-level information that will be of real value. ?It was to promote our customer care that we launched Channel Vision, which delivers specifications in an accessible way, and Profile Online, which provides information on Ideal?s entire product portfolio,? he says.
Breen adds that Ideal?s reseller customers have commented that the company?s service has improved since the introduction of its own fleet of dedicated delivery vans and drivers. ?The number of DOAs has reduced from eight per cent to two per cent because our own drivers are trained and take more care. It also helps to have the drivers building contact with the customers.?
Ideal is also planning to have e-commerce available to the channel within a few months, and expects this service to make the company the preferred supplier for many resellers. ?The bottom line is you have to give people what they want to enable to them to provide a better service to their customers,? says Breen.
Living on the front line: Ultracomp
Ken Ramsden, manager of the customer service division at Ultracomp, which provides software to assist with customer care and support, believes resellers have to adopt a ?service culture?. He defines this as ?the act of satisfying customer requirements being given prime importance ? customer awareness being intuitive?. But, he adds, for a service culture to thrive, there needs to be support from senior management.
?It?s all about communication and having accurate and timely knowledge of the customers and their requirements.? This can be achieved by reapportioning responsibility so that front line employees have the authority to react to the needs and problems of individual clients. ?The management structure has to be aligned to support the front line staff,? he says.
There has to be a mechanism for measuring customer satisfaction, which will also identify trends and anticipate new requirements. ?You have to provide customers with the opportunity to complain,? says Ramsden, ?and then you have to listen to their complaints and act on them. Complaints can be your best ? sometimes only ? form of feedback.
?For a service culture to flourish, it has to be owned and driven by the line management, and there has to be recognition there is never a text book approach. Each business, each customer, is different.?
A problem shared: Remedy Corporation
Matt Miller, marketing manager at Remedy Corporation, says: ?Customer care is not just about just solving your customers? problems, it?s about making them feel that their problem has been solved, even if it hasn?t.
If a customer calls demanding a refund, for example, you can make them feel satisfied if you just listen to their complaints, because all they really want is a fair hearing.?
Miller says he is amazed by the number of companies that set up expensive call centres and then staff them with low-wage, low-skill staff. ?Customers often just want to be treated with courtesy and not feel they are just a number. A bad-mannered customer services response can undo years of good effort or negate expensive technology.?
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