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Book Reviews

Dealing with the Customer from Hell: A Survival Guide

by Shaun Belding

Customer Relationship Management: A Strategic Imperative in the World of E-business

by Stanley A. Brown

How to Deliver Excellent Customer Service: A Step-by-step Guide for Every Business

by Julie Olley

I used to joke, when I was working full-time on the sales floor, that I had the phrase “the customer is always right” tattooed on the inside of my eyelids so I would be reminded of it when a less-than-perfect customer encounter caused my eyes to roll back in my head. The line always got a laugh – I was hardly alone in my derision for difficult patrons (although, for the record, I was very good at keeping my customers happy). The widespread low regard for customer service is reflected in opinion polls that find an almost universal decline in service standards.
This is actually quite odd, considering the importance placed on customer service by business analysts. It is accepted wisdom that customer service is one of the most important facets of a business, if not the single most crucial, playing a significant role in determining success or failure. Standard practice, however, belies that wisdom. In most businesses other duties, from inventory management to merchandising, from advertising to planned giving, all take priority. Customer service, representing the public face of a company, is left in the hands of its least experienced, often youngest employees – poorly paid, poorly trained, and stretched to the breaking point by staffing cutbacks.
Of course there will be complaints. Of course businesses will find themselves in trouble. It would be ludicrous to think otherwise. All owners know there has to be a better way. Having recently done some staff sales training, however, I’m very aware of the difficulty in teaching customer service skills. There’s an axiom I use to conclude my training sessions: “Dealing with people isn’t rocket science. It’s harder.” Three new books examine, with varying approaches and degrees of success, the difficult but essential process of improving customer service.
Stanley A. Brown’s Customer Relationship Management: A Strategic Imperative in the World of e-Business takes a macro view, and is limited by this theoretical basis. Brown’s book is not strictly intended for the retail sector, but it is difficult to imagine any business that would find it useful. Customer Relationship Management will no doubt win admirers in head offices and boardrooms, but there is little practical information that will actually be of use to those whose job it is to put the theory into practice. Instead, Brown, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, loads his book with flow charts and impenetrable jargon, in the hope that no one will realize that he offers only the most pedestrian information. Early in the book, for example, Brown argues, “For businesses that manage information as a strategic asset, measuring customer satisfaction, assessing and managing customers by profitability and measuring return on marketing and sales investment are important indices for organizational direction and improvement.” No kidding. Even the allegedly programmatic section “Implementing CRM: 20 Steps to Success” is so steeped in jargon it is of little use, even to those few readers who will persevere through more than 250 pages of turgid, insight-barren prose to reach it. Customer Relationship Management is the stuff of which future “Dilbert” strips are made.
Of considerably more use is Julie Olley’s How to Deliver Excellent Customer Service: A Step-by-Step Guide for Every Business. Directed toward small and home-based businesses, How to Deliver Excellent Customer Service is a guide to implementing and improving customer service programs. Olley has arranged the book as a series of worksheets, interspersed with restrained commentary on the importance of “quality assurance,” allowing insightful retailers to assess the level of customer service within their organization and to develop systems to build on the strengths and correct the weaknesses. Writing in straightforward, almost perfunctory prose, Olley is occasionally simplistic, pointing out ideas that should be common sense. However, this simplicity is key to the book – most businesses with customer service problems have them because they have ignored the basics.
There are two caveats concerning How to Deliver Excellent Customer Service. First, the success of the book is completely dependent upon the insight and honesty of the retailer working with it. For owners who have the courage to honestly assess their business, to view their service as their customers experience it, Olley’s book will be an invaluable resource, a tool for building their future success. For retailers unwilling to take a hard look at their business, or unable to admit that they may have a problem, Olley’s self-directed approach will simply serve as another fiddle while their retail Rome burns around them.
The second qualification is that, while Olley does touch on face-to-face customer service and the day-to-day concerns of the staff, How to Deliver Excellent Customer Service focuses primarily on infrastructure. While proper programs and policies are important, and surveys and follow-up letters can be invaluable, Olley offers little guidance to floor staff, the very people whose jobs are defined by customer service. For them, one turns to Shaun Belding.
If I had my way, everyone who works in retail would be given a copy of Shaun Belding’s Dealing with the Customer from Hell: A Survival Guide, and a follow-up quiz to ensure that they had read it. If I could afford it, I would carry a couple of copies with me at all times, to hand out as needed (as someone who’s worked in customer service, I’m perhaps more critical than most when I receive poor treatment myself). Belding, a former retail worker turned consultant, has written an absolutely essential guide for improved customer service. While he examines some of the same infrastructure issues that Olley does, his primary focus is on the one-on-one retail encounter.
Anyone who has spent any time at all in retail will have a litany of horrible-customer stories, but despite the catchy title, Dealing with the Customer from Hell puts the onus of customer satisfaction squarely upon the retailer: “You may not want to hear this, but a significant amount of our suffering with Customers from Hell is self-induced.” The Customer from Hell is not a breed apart, Belding writes: “An unsatisfied customer is one who had either positive expectations that were not met or negative expectations that were met.” Happily, he provides the reader with a number of skills and techniques to help in either situation.
Belding writes breezily yet authoritatively, the result, no doubt, of thousands of hours providing service seminars and training. His candour is reassuring. Rather than focusing on a customer service ideal, Belding acknowledges the confrontational nature of retail, and chooses to focus on these areas by eliminating the poor customer service that results in conflict. The book’s linchpin for conflict resolution is LESTER, an acronym for six steps essential to defusing difficult situations. (The steps are, briefly: Listening; Echoing the issue; Sympathizing; Thanking for the input; Evaluating options; and Responding with a win-win solution.)
Perhaps more importantly, Belding also sets out a mission statement for salespeople, which includes “the six key functions of a really good salesperson,” a code of conduct for the retail sector that succinctly describes the role of a salesperson (and no, it’s not just sitting behind a cash register). According to Belding, a really good salesperson makes customers comfortable, is an ambassador for the company, is always positive, is always honest, and cares. If retailers could work according to this code of conduct, the experience on both sides of the counter would be far more pleasant and rewarding.
Customer service seems as if it should be so simple, so straightforward. After all, we’ve all been customers. It’s not, however, that easy. Shaun Belding and Julie Olley have both made significant, and desperately needed, contributions to the field. It’s now up to retailers, both at a management level and on the sales floor, to take responsibility for the follow-through. Like it or not, their livelihoods depend upon it.