In this economy, service is more important than ever.  I've noticed that companies have responded in two distinct ways to the current economic climate.  One way involves layoffs and having employees do more with less.  This is certainly understandable for companies who are just starting out and are managing cash flow carefully.  The risk, however, is that service slides if not made a priority. There is no forgiveness for poor service in this economy.  None.

I see the customer service slide occurring in companies that are inwardly focused - meaning that they spend more time and energy on what is going on inside the company than they do on customers, prospects or partners.  It's fine to be somewhat internally focused when you are early in development.  The minute your company starts producing revenue, it's time to make everyone's focus on external influences - competitors, customers, prospects and partners.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are companies that make service a priority and leverage this as a competitive advantage.  These companies may have made the same cutbacks, but the focus in the company is external.  They don't spend time arguing over petty details.  They build a high level of trust inside their companies.  They set clear goals and priorities that center on adding customer value.  Most importantly, they have a relentless and unyielding effort toward providing good service.

The internet is fantastic at exposing poor customer service.  A five minute search effort before you do business with a company could save you a lot of grief or make your life much easier.  I am amazed when I find companies that don't understand the value of building a business around happy customers.  I don't think they realize how much business they lose or that their prospects have the ability to easily check their references.

This morning I was on LinkedIn and read a comment that said a business should not use social networking -- because it would give customers a chance to vent.  To me, a company with that thinking won't be around much longer.   AT&T Wireless is a good example of a company that gets a lot of flack for network problems but they make effective use of social networking anyway.  Join their Facebook group and read some of the comments.  AT&T Wireless users can be pretty hostile.  AT&T takes the heat and responds graciously.  They can't make everyone happy, but they are not running and hiding either.  AT&T is such an interesting example of social networking since they have a huge customer base and a high percentage of early adopters -- exactly the type of people most likely to speak out when they are irate.  I applaud AT&T for the effort and wish more companies would follow suit.  This is the thinking that leads to improved customer relations and for forgiveness when issues do appear.  As AT&T builds out its network, they publicly announce it to the cheers of people in that area and to the pleas for expanded service by the folks who live elsewhere.   They repeatedly demonstrate that they listen and are taking action.  The alternative is to hide… and watch their customers jump ship.

There is more competition in business than ever.  Competition forces specialization and fosters innovation.  Every company would be well-served to examine its business model and determine the things that can be done very well… and let go of the rest.   Focus on making customers happy and when the economy improves, you'll be far ahead of your competition.  Give your customers reasons to keep coming back.

If you're just starting out, engineer good service into your business processes.  If you are generating revenue and have angry customers, fix it now… before it's too late.

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