In a phone survey of my perception of some major brands, I was asked: "Do you believe this company puts its customers' interests ahead of its own?"
I couldn't help it. I laughed out loud. Of course no large company will ever truly put customers' interests ahead of its own. Responsible corporate leaders do their best to serve customers but will always put the company's well-being, and that of its employees, ahead of its customers'. Otherwise they would have some explaining to do to their shareholders.
Even if you have no shareholders or investors to answer to, it's a wise approach. These days, customers are ever more demanding, and quick to take their complaints public on the Web. That reality leads many small business owners into a never-ending scramble to "delight" their customers. That isn't good for anyone.
There's a better way. Strike the right balance between great customer service and great care for your company's employees, and for yourself. How do you do that? Consider these ideas:
1. Expect yourself and your employees to be treated with respect and courtesy at all times.
And if that's ever not the case, it's your responsibility as the business owner to do something about it. You might let a rude or inconsiderate customer slide for a time or two. After that, it's your job to let customers know what's expected of them. In truly bad cases, you may need to get rid of the worst-offending customers. Don't hesitate, if they're making you or those who work for you miserable.
2. Neither you nor your staff should be available all the time.
Earlier this year, Inc.com columnist Eric Holtzclaw shared a story from an account supervisor at a marketing agency that I found horrifying.
"A couple of weeks ago I was at my mother's home in Florida, sipping coffee at the kitchen table while waiting for a Thanksgiving pie to finish baking. Oh, and I also happened to be on a conference call with my creative team in L.A. and clients in New York."
Now maybe she was baking that pie a day or two ahead of the holiday, in which case I have no objection. But if she actually was conducting a conference call on Thanksgiving morning there's so much wrong with that I don't know where to start. Message to client: "We never take a day off so you can expect us to work at your convenience, even on a national holiday." Message to employees: "We don't expect you to have a life with your family. If you want one, better seek a job elsewhere."
All of us need to set times when we're not available for work. That goes for your employees as well. Customers who don't understand this probably aren't customers you want.
3. Don't accept a bad deal today in the hopes of getting a good one tomorrow.
"We're going to be your best customer." How many times have you listened to a promise such as this one and offered special pricing or other concessions in the hopes of getting a lot more business in the future? And then that future never arrives and you wind up angry at the customer, and angry at yourself for getting sucked in?
Avoid this scenario by treating each deal as an individual piece of business. Don't get pushed into giving away the store hoping for future business. It may not ever materialize.
4. Know where you're willing to give in, where you aren't.
If you approach each situation with a definite plan for what you will and won't negotiate, you won't be easily pushed off-balance by unexpected requests, demands, threats, or offers. Giving customers what they want is great, but not at the expense of your profitability or of overburdening your staff. It's important to know what you can and can't say yes to.
5. Don't be the cheapest solution.
These days, with so many inexpensive foreign imports of everything and competition happening on a global scale for everything from reading mammograms to writing newspaper articles, it's almost impossible for a small company to be the least expensive solution in many situations.
So don't even try. Differentiate your products on quality, on design, or on features. Stay away from competing on price. Apple is a great example of a company that has built a hugely loyal following by creating the best products it can, not the least costly ones.
6. Do listen to customer complaints, but remember to keep them in perspective.
Any business, large or small, that ignores customer complaints does so at its peril. But reacting to every complaint is just as dangerous. This is a lesson I learned as president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Independent writers are often brilliant and always interesting, but they are also an individualistic, cantankerous bunch. I'm fond of saying that if we handed out free money at ASJA conferences, people would complain about the amount.
It's much too easy to fall into management-by-complaint-avoidance, as I've learned the hard way. Pretty soon you're too terrified of the reaction to make any change at all. You're paralyzed.
7. Know your own value.
Your most important tool for treating your customers right without treating yourself wrong is to know and keep the true value of your product or service front and center in your mind. What makes your product unique? What sets it apart from the competition? What are the values and visions your company was built on and that make it special?
Remember those things, and both your company and your customers will come out winners.