Turning Lemons to Lemonade

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Savvy companies know that customer feedback--especially the negative kind--is a valuable tool they can use to retain customers, improve products and build their businesses. Front-office technologies, such as CRM, make it easy to track customer complaints and provide timely information to sales, service, product development and other departments.

Yet surprisingly, few businesses take the next step--turning complaints into sales opportunities. Everyone pays lip service to customer satisfaction, but not many people make a real commitment to act on it every day. If it isn't a priority for an organization, it won't even be on the radar screen for its employees. Most salespeople still think a customer problem is something to avoid. It gets in the way of selling, it's uncomfortable, it may be difficult to solve. Essentially, they see it as someone else's job. In this environment, only the rare salesperson will take time away from meeting his sales target to help customers with complaints.

In addition, many companies are not set up to respond to customer complaints. In complex organizations, we frequently find different sales support solutions implemented in different parts of the company, with no integration or processes in place to actually use the data in any meaningful way. Without integrated technology and process across your entire front office, customer complaints are merely collected.

Not by CRM Alone
Companies often don't make effective use of the customer data they collect. A CRM system can be the central database for sales information, contacts, marketing, prospects, direct mail capability and customer service. But then what?

Although CRM is an enabling technology with tremendous potential, it is not a silver bullet. If you have poor sales support processes, automating them just helps you do the wrong things faster. Employees won't change their behavior just because they have a new tool. If you don't have a commitment to dealing with customer complaints, all you're doing is collecting them, documenting them and building up a database. You know in real time that you're screwing up, but that doesn't get you any closer to a solution.

Technology is not the only component in a successful lemons-to-lemonade program. You need to develop your customer satisfaction philosophy, determine your integration processes and make technology a part of a fully integrated front-office system. With integrated technology and process, a sales rep calling on an existing account will have all the information--account contacts, opportunities, service calls, reported bugs--and an action plan for managing his client relationship to maximum advantage.

Leveraging Customer Complaints
Call center service applications collect a great deal of information about client problems, which can be leveraged to solve other customers' problems and even improve the product itself. All too often though, "trouble tickets" never leave the service area. If there isn't a process in place for sales people to easily find out what problems their customers are having, they won't take the time to search for it.

Call center applications document the reality, the history of what's happening with each customer, but they can't solve customer problems or improve satisfaction levels. These systems often are not connected to other front-office departments and functions. If call center applications are part of a front-office system, then your sales reps can get instant, accurate customer profiles that can be used to determine appropriate sales strategies.

In today's multichannel sales environment, customers are looking for continuous and consistent touchpoints with their suppliers. They don't want to keep repeating the problem over and over, trying to get to the right person, entering their account number five times. They want continuity and an intelligent response. A fully integrated front-office system, supported by the right processes, allows your company to deliver exactly that. If your direct salespeople know what's going on with service, with customer complaints and with supply, they can create a continuous and consistent relationship with the customer, increasing satisfaction levels and, ultimately, sales revenue.

Sales support processes can take many forms, but should cover at least these basics:

  • Develop a history of problems by client and product. While this may not always enhance loyalty with the specific customer who has the problem, it can be used to develop better products and solutions that result in increased overall loyalty of your customer base.

  • Classify complaints by severity and prioritize them so that the salesperson knows how to react to them appropriately. Is it a system crash, a nuisance or something in between? Some companies ask customers to rank their problems in terms of severity and are surprised to find them very realistic and honest in this self-assessment. They tend not to cry wolf for lower priority problems, knowing that they will move to the front of the line when a critical issue arises.

  • Set goals for how long it should take to resolve problems, according to degree of severity. Compare estimated against actual time to improve your performance and create a track record to use as a marketing tool.

  • Take ownership, even when a complaint isn't directly related to your product. Instead of brushing it off as "not my problem," bring in a partner who can provide a solution. As a trusted advisor, you are in a unique position to be a hero and build a stronger relationship with the client.

  • Take a disciplined approach to standardizing solutions to recurring problems. Employees who solve repetitive problems tend to keep their expertise in their heads. After all, it's a lot of trouble to describe problems accurately and put them into a database. However, that step is essential to reap the cost savings offered by Web-based support systems. The better the data in your knowledge base, the more problems you can solve over the Web, and the more money you can save by reducing live customer/call center interactions.

  • Tie compensation to customer satisfaction. Create a pathological aversion for poor satisfaction that permeates the entire company by rewarding sales and other employees for addressing customer complaints. When a customer has a critical problem, don't just assign a customer service person or a salesperson to fix the problem. Aim the resources of the entire organization if need be.

    Wooing Complaints from Customers
    On average, a satisfied customer tells three people about his experience, but a dissatisfied one tells 10 to 100 others, depending on which study you read. That should be motivation enough to do more than talk about customer satisfaction. Yet there are a lot of companies in the B2B world that are just not very interested in customer satisfaction, no matter what their official policies say. They ask the wrong question, like the waiter who interrupts your meal with "Is everything all right, sir?" expecting to hear "Just fine, thank you." If he was really interested in customer satisfaction, he'd ask instead, "What is the one thing we could have done better?"

    In the same way, companies often get a false sense of accomplishment from their customer satisfaction surveys, which typically ask the equivalent of "Is everything all right, sir?" They ask the wrong people the wrong questions and then come up with a raw number that shows everything is, indeed, all right.

    There is no raw number to measure satisfaction. The fundamental question is: "Did we deliver the business value that we jointly agreed upon?" Anything else is failure. Instead of waiting until the conclusion of a business deal to ask, have that conversation several times along the way. "Are we moving toward the 132 percent ROI that we agreed we could mutually do?" That's an enlightening discussion that many customers would like to have, especially since their service units are held accountable internally for the value delivered.

    Of course, in the complex world of value-added products and services, the customer also has a responsibility to make the deal work. Sometimes the expected value isn't delivered because of a collaborative partnering problem. It may be as much about what the customer has or hasn't done as it is about what the supplier contributed. That's an ideal opportunity for the salesperson to do more to help the customer implement or deploy the product or service more effectively. By initiating complaint resolution and actively pursing customer satisfaction, the sales rep creates an environment in which there is much less finger pointing and much more collaboration. It's a win-win for everyone.

    Turning customer complaints into opportunities to build customer loyalty starts with the right philosophy. Not just having a philosophy of customer satisfaction, but articulating it, rewarding it and living it everyday in every department.

    A Passion for Delivering Value
    Customer satisfaction is not about being perfect. It flows from giving customers what they want and need, which changes over time. Very often what they need is different from what you think they want. The insight gained from an integrated customer feedback program can help you deliver the value each customer expects, resulting in greater loyalty and business retention. By focusing on customer complaints, you also uncover valuable information to improve your products and open up new opportunities for partnering with other vendors.

    It all starts a philosophy of customer satisfaction, supported by technology, process... and passion. Live and breathe your philosophy--tie compensation to it, get everyone in the company focused on it. Make the commitment to doing the right thing for the customer all the time, every time. Put your sales processes in place and integrate them with your front-office applications. You'll be ahead of 99 percent of the companies out there. The rewards are waiting.

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