What happens after the sale is more influential in determining the probability of repeat business than anything the salesperson can do.
If the customer’s experience with your company during the post-sale phase is substantially different than it was during the pre-sales phase, then your company has a problem.
The easiest thing a company can do is Practice Unconditional Support. This is the one part of the selling process that is entirely under your direct control. Building great products and supporting the hell out of them doesn’t require a decision from anyone but you.
What Is Unconditional Support?
Imagine you’re in the hospital delivery room and your first child has just been born.
When you see the baby, your baby, for the first time, with its few tufts of wispy hair and reddish-purple skin still adjusting to the outside world, you’re struck with an overwhelming sensation that radiates from your heart out to every fiber of your being.
You love this small person more than anything else in the world, this person you don’t yet know but want to protect and support without question and without condition. This is unconditional love.
You must treat your customers the same way.
They should be loved and supported without question or condition.
If a child makes a mistake and hurts himself, your first response is to help him feel better. You save the learning experience, or the reprimand if required, until later.
My son, Alec, was a fourth grader when we gave him permission for the first time to ride his bicycle about a mile and a half to the neighborhood Baskin-Robbins store with some buddies. School had just finished, it was a beautiful spring day, and the whole gang was going to ride over there and back together from our house.
About half an hour later the police phoned to say that our son had been hit by a car less than a mile from home. His mother sped to the scene and arrived to find him lying on the pavement in the middle of an intersection, being attended by EMTs, surrounded by police cars, his crumpled bike next to a small white Toyota, its windshield with a hole the size of a basketball in its middle.
That was not the time to grill him about what happened.
Fortunately, he’d been wearing his helmet and it saved his life. While the ER docs were working on him at the hospital, we met with the police officer who was investigating the accident.
It was clear that Alec had misjudged his speed and had swerved across the road in an attempt to beat the car that was approaching in the oncoming traffic lane. It wasn’t the time to scold him while he was in the hospital.
We just focused on getting him back on his feet. But a week or two later we began talking to him about the details of what had happened and how to avoid a similar disaster in the future.
Likewise, if a customer has a problem with the product you sold him, the first thing you must do is fix the problem in the shortest time possible. If there is “blame” to be affixed for a failure, do the investigation after the customer is using your product again.
Corollary #1: Customers identify more with great support than with great features
Customers’ appreciation of good service has grown in this era of never being able to talk to a real person at a company that sold you something. Your calls reach unattended answering machines, voice recognition systems, and automated attendants that never once offer you the option to speak with a real person.
When you finally manage to navigate to the phone system to speak to a real person, it’s often someone who
- (a) isn’t particularly interested in helping
- (b) believes that the real problem is “operator error”
- (c) doesn’t understand the problem in sufficient depth to recommend a solution.
In any event, after spending substantial time to resolve your problem you’re no further along than you were before you started.
Too many companies still subscribe to the attitude of the CEO of a major computer maker back in the 1970s who was famous for saying that you wanted your customers to be surly but not rebellious:
- If we do answer your call, we do it reluctantly.
- If you do have a problem, you must have caused it so I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.
- We will do just enough to solve the issue that made you call, but we will do it reluctantly.
That CEO believed that dissatisfied customers were the best sales prospects. The solution to the dissatisfied customers’ problem was always to buy even more equipment. This approach to repeat sales is the opposite of Practicing Unconditional Support.
Corollary #2: The customer always has a valid problem
Much as horses sense fear in people, customers innately sense resentment and reluctance in customer-support people. Your company must treat customers and their problem with respect. Their calls are a not a bother. They did you the favor of buying your product. If you take care of them cheerfully and professionally, you will get even more orders.
“What if the customer is wrong?”
What do you mean by “wrong”?
“What if the problem is their fault? The unit we sold them broke because they were using it incorrectly.”
So are you suggesting that their problem is less important than other people’s because they did something to cause it?
“Why should I be on the hook to fix a problem they created?”
The customer doesn’t care about right or wrong. All they know is that they can’t use your product. If you let that condition stand for any number of hours, let alone days, because you are waiting for them to acknowledge that they were at fault, then you’re not going to get another order from this account.
“They can’t all be good accounts.”
Actually they can be—if you take control of fixing their problem.
Corollary #3: Do whatever it takes to fix the problem in the shortest time possible.
Don’t burden the customer with your baggage when trying to fix their problem. Let’s say a customer calls up and says the unit you sold them has had a hard failure. It won’t turn on. They have an important customer meeting the next day and need your product to be working. What do you do? It’s simple: send them a new unit overnight.
“Our company policy is to not ship out replacement units until we receive the customer unit and inspect it.”
You need to change that policy. Why would you wait? The customer needs to be up and running immediately.
“I don’t know. It’s what we’ve always done. And besides, maybe the unit can be fixed rather than replaced.”
Do it differently. The customer will always remember that you went out of your way to support them.
“What if the product is out of warranty?”
So what? Fix the problem. Send them a loaner immediately. They’ll return it when their unit is fixed. (Or, better yet, make them a good offer to buy the loaner unit from you when their unit is ready to return.)
Follow through on your commitments.
Corollary #4: Put your best people on support
Your customer-support people have to be problem solvers. They have to enjoy communicating with the customer. In many respects a customer-support person must have qualifications similar to those of the salespeople you would hire.
They should be thoughtful, empathic, knowledgeable about your product, aggressive. Customer support should be a stepping stone from a technical department to an inside sales position.
I ran sales for a division of one company where one of our biggest customers was a large telecommunications service provider. It was a coup to get the account in the first place, and in sales we all felt pretty good about ourselves.
The CEO of the customer firm was coming to our offices for a meeting about the next-generation product. On the day of the meeting he arrived with a couple of his VPs in tow.
We—our CEO, the general manager of my division, a few other people, and I—met him in the lobby. We shook hands and made introductions and began to escort the visitors to our conference room.
Out of nowhere the customer CEO says, “Before we do anything, I need to meet Eileen.”
We all stopped and looked at each other with surprise.
The CEO of a Fortune 1000 company wanted to meet one of our customer-support technicians. How did he even know who she was?
I said follow me, and we went upstairs and wound around through the halls and cubicles until we got to Eileen’s cube. We all crowded patiently in the hall while she finished a call. When she was finished I made the introduction.
The customer CEO said, “Eileen, I just wanted to meet you and let you know that we truly appreciate the fine support you provide our team. We’ve had some tight deadlines in the past year and you have helped ensure that we met them all. Thank you.”
And then he turns to my CEO and announces in a loud voice, “This person,” he said while pointing at Eileen, “this person is the principal reason we continue to buy product from your company.”
“And you thought it was all about you.”
That’s right, I did. And I was wrong. I make a point of telling that story to clients every chance I get. It’s important to remember how you create value for a customer—and who within the company creates that value.
Corollary #5: A live person must always answer the support line
If you’re a small or medium-sized business, there is no excuse for having an automated attendant on your support line. That is just laziness.
If the customer-support people are busy on other lines, then you have other people assigned as back-ups to take the calls.
For example, if you’re selling a technical product, then you assign engineers to provide fallback coverage for customer support. They don’t have to stay with the case until it’s solved, but they can possibly get the customer back to an operational state.
Corollary #6: All customer-support inquiries have to be responded to in less than 30 minutes
Why 30 minutes? Because a response in less than 30 minutes will feel like instantaneous responsiveness to a customer.
Anything longer and it will feel like next-day responsiveness.
This does not mean that all problems have to be solved in 30 minutes. That’s the goal, but it’s unrealistic. If it’s a busy day, then your call may amount to nothing more than acknowledging receipt of the customer’s inquiry and gathering details about their problem.
There are many customer-support software systems that will automatically generate an email message in response to a customer’s call. But that is not a satisfactory response. When a customer’s equipment isn’t working, they want to talk with someone.
Here are two final tips:
Sometimes a product you sell just doesn’t work the way you expect or advertise. It could be an issue with just one unit, or it could be a shortcoming in your product line. Don’t try to bluff your way through these situations. If your product doesn’t work for the customer, take it back. Send a refund check. A little humility can be powerful coming from a seller. Customers often don’t get the truth from vendors.
Not long ago I was out to dinner with my wife at one of our favorite places in Manhattan. It is owned by Danny Meyer, a restaurateur with a reputation for ensuring consistent and impeccable customer service at his restaurants.
My wife wasn’t able to finish her chicken entree and asked our server if he could box up the remainder to take home. Of course, he said, and whisked away her plate.
As we were paying our bill, the server came over and said to my wife that he was sorry, but a mistake had been made. There had been a miscommunication with the kitchen and her leftover chicken had been thrown away.
He apologized for the inconvenience and said the chef had prepared another whole chicken entree for her to take home. If we would just wait for another couple of minutes it would be ready.
Sure enough, in less than five minutes they had a bag waiting for us at the front door. We had that chicken the next night for dinner and made plans to return to that restaurant.
A simple admission of fault. A little humility. Either of these coming from a company will go a long way toward keeping customers engaged.
It all starts at the top. That’s you.
The commitment to practice unconditional support has to come from the CEO and senior managers. It can’t just be talk.
You have to talk the talk and walk the walk. Management needs to lead by example and practice it themselves. The CEO of a small business must actively talk to customers, both those who are satisfied and those who are not. All customers should have the CEO’s email and office phone number.
Think about it like this:
If you were a customer of your own company, how would you expect to be supported? Examine your customer-support staff and processes and imagine what it would be like to have a problem with one of your products. Poll your customers using simple online survey tools to determine if they are satisfied with the support you provide and what areas need improvement.
If yours is like most established companies, you receive a large percentage of your orders from existing customers. Orders from current customers are the least expensive orders to capture. You need to make sure that you are providing a level of support that will result in even more repeat business.
- Customers identify more with great service than with great features.
- The customer always has a valid problem. Do whatever it takes to resolve the customer’s problem in the shortest time possible.
- Put your best people on customer support. It is not a home for people who failed elsewhere.
- All customer-support inquiries must be answered within 30 minutes. Auto-response from a CRM system doesn’t count.