Delivering Customer Service

Delivering Customer Service
Using design and operating guidelines to 'make good' on your promises

By Jim Kane

To Whom It May Concern:
Please be advised that unit #3088 is now clean and unoccupied.

For the record, I would like to state I am disappointed in your facilities. Upon my initial visit to your business, when I was shown a model unit, I was informed of a safety and security feature--that being entry to the elevator that was granted only through an access code. This feature, which was used as a selling point, never worked. Also, the elevator doors close much too quickly considering they are used for the loading and unloading of large quantities of furniture or other items.

I understand you are remodeling to upgrade your property; but from the time I leased a unit, until today when I vacated, I was continuously inconvenienced by the construction.

I am disappointed that your company promises services, such as convenience and elevator security, which are not provided to the consumer. I am further disappointed that the consumer receives no compensation for your ineptness.

Amy, Your Customer

You have just read an actual letter I received in the past week. I was uncomfortable reading it, since I pride myself on the attention (I believed) we pay to the delivery of customer service. As you can see, we haven't provided value for this customer's money. Have we failed all of our customers? How can we turn this customer's experience into a positive one? Could we have prevented the inconveniences she experienced? These sorts of questions can be addressed through the way we design, operate and present our self-storage product.

What Is Good Customer Service to You?

My objective is to provide the best product and service to all of our customers, all of the time. How do you, as a customer, determine whether you are receiving quality service? Each of us defines quality service based upon our values, needs and, perhaps, moods on the day we are buying or using a product or service. What do customers need and value?

  • The matching of their needs to a specific product.
  • Availability of the product best fitting their needs.
  • All the conveniences provided in the use of a product.
  • Fair, friendly, helpful people or systems to help with the selection and purchase of a product or service.
  • The purchase process should be simple, fast and organized for the consumer.
  • Customers need confidence in the outcome of their purchase. The product and service must meet their stated and unstated needs.
  • Problems encountered must be fixed so the consumer sees the value in their purchase.
  • Your price must reflect the value you deliver from beginning to end of the customer's experience.

Whom Do You Count on to Provide Customer Service?

I count on everyone and everything I come into contact with at the place I buy a product to provide for my needs. I want an inviting environment, which should be clean, safe and organized. I simply want to be comfortable while spending my money. If I need to use the bathroom, I want it clean and stocked. If I need to park my car, I'd like the spaces to be wide enough and close enough to where I must transact my business. I want to feel safe as I drive to the location and conduct my business. When I walk into a facility, I want to feel these people can honor their commitments to me.

I walked into a truck-rental business with friends last weekend and found the employees arguing with another customer. They were then rude to us when it was our turn. The place was dirty, smelly and poorly organized, and my expectation was that this truck-rental experience would be terrible--and it was. Customer service is not just the way your staff treats your customers or how you resolve problems. Quality customer service must be designed into your product, services and procedures. Customers will notice if it is not.

Provide Customer Service in Your Storage Business

The above letter demonstrated that we failed to provide the customer the value she expected in several areas of her experience. First, there was the broken elevator-security system, then the elevator closing time and the ongoing inconvenience of construction. The customer then pointed out that we failed to adjust our prices to reflect the diminished value she experienced or perceived in our product.

There is a difference in some customers' experiences and perceptions of value. We've received very few complaints in our three years of operation. This suggests to me that customers do think our product consistently provides value--or they have not taken the time to let us know differently. Remember, though, that every customer is entitled to his opinion whether we as business owners agree with his conclusions. We must try to meet every customer's highest expectations.

Customer service is both designed into a product and delivered through quality operations. The complaints in our customer's letter can be summarized in the following categories: From an operating standpoint, the issue is the security system and how we managed the construction of the building adjacent to our existing storage operations. From a development standpoint is the type of elevator and door system we use. Finally, our opportunity to deliver value back to this angry customer occurs in how we choose to resolve the problems she's addressed.

Operating Features Provide Customer Service

All contact with the customer must emphasize his needs above those of the company. If you provide for the former, the latter will be met. When using or writing a telephone script, ask questions that show your interest in meeting customer needs before listing the fees and limitations associated with your product (i.e., hours of operation). Even if they store elsewhere, you will have delivered value to them by listening and offering solutions.

Procedures and related paperwork must be simple, professional and well-organized so the customer doesn't feel burdened. I use a tool that summarizes the key points (foreclosure, written notifications, rents and fees) in my lease. Most customers want to move quickly through the lease presentation, and this allows us to cover the legal issues if they insist on abbreviating the explanation of lease terms.

Do you make it easy for customers to vacate? Can they fax their vacate notice? Do you require a specific form? Remember, you are looking for certain information so you can properly update your records. If they want to send it in their own format, accept it. They shouldn't have to deliver it in person, either. A fax is a legal document and, in some cases, so are e-mails. Make it easy for your customers to work with you. Recognize that they may not follow your standard procedures. Be flexible and responsive.

Some customers want to do the rental paperwork for one location at another location. At first I resisted on this point, but I lost sales due to strict adherence to this procedure. Now they can complete the paperwork wherever it is convenient, and I will transport it to the proper storage center.

Do you take the American Express card? Many businesses don't because they don't like the fees charged to the business. Perhaps the customer will pay a slight fee to compensate you for taking the card. I've found nearly one-third of my customers want to use AMEX for its mileage program. Their fees are the same as those charged by VISA when you incorporate all the bank charges. I've listened to my customers, and now allow them to pay the way that's most convenient for them.

Develop and teach your employees guidelines--not policies--to follow. Allow them the flexibility to change some procedures to meet different customer needs. Teach your employees the power in saying "yes" vs. "no" to customer requests. Create a compensation system to reward them for responsible decisions that deliver customer service. Define quality, and reward its consistent delivery.

Development Features that Provide Customer Service

My customer found our elevator doors were closing too quickly. My type of elevator requires that the doors close, and the rate can only be modified slightly. Next time, I will look for a different system. The process of loading and unloading goods is paramount to making a customer's move easy. Execute the following and you will be providing good customer service:

  • Provide staging areas to unload vehicles prior to moving belongings into a hallway or elevator.
  • Be sure these areas are protected from the elements.
  • Driveways must be a minimum of 25 feet wide.
  • Carts, dollies and hand trucks must be available at all times for customer use. Don't restrict them to office hours.
  • Hallways must be at least 5 feet wide.
  • Storage unit doors should be as wide and high as possible.
  • Lighting must be placed to minimize dark areas in units or outside.
  • Restrooms and vending machines must be available during access hours.

I recently helped a friend move into my storage center. I learned that our access doors to the elevator lobby were a foot shorter than the elevator doors and hallway height. This requires customers to tip their belongings to the side to go through the first set of doors. This condition is a hassle for the customer and a simple oversight in development. Next time, a different design will provide better a product for our customers.

Communicating With Customers

How you communicate with customers creates value for your business. Invoices, late letters, telephone calls, e-mails and signs should all be professional. This should also hold true for all internal communication, such as memos between departments. A professional look signals to your customers they are dealing with a quality operation dedicated to providing them value for their storage dollar.

When I communicated with my angry customer, I listened, empathized and apologized, offering a partial refund for the inconveniences she experienced. I'm sure it will mean referrals in the future. Think like a customer, not the owner, when you develop and operate your facility. You'll then be making choices that make you money and maximize the value of your services. Ultimately, this will maximize your income and the related value of your business.

Jim Kane is the owner of Meridian Storage in Atlanta. His career began as a CPA in Seattle, where Shurgard became a client of his accounting firm. Eventually, he went to work for the company as its Eastern Region operations. For the past nine years, he has operated and developed storage facilities for his own company in addition to serving as consultant to numerous other owners across the country.

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