By Denise M. Roberts

What is the biggest complaint we hear from the service sector? For places that traditionally rely on part-time and on-call workers, such as the retail and food industries, it always comes back to lousy customer service. But that can encompass a broad spectrum of complaints, from not getting what one wants to poor communication skills to just plain old bad service. In some sectors, it’s believed that it goes hand-in-hand with those marketplaces that are so focused on profit that all else falls by the wayside. That is patently not true. ‘Bad’ customer service happens in any sector, market or industry.

We set expectations by listening to the need of the consumer and communicating what we can, are willing and are able to do for them. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? The reality, though, is quite different. We are living in an age where people have come to expect an onslaught of answers to simple questions (with a couple of generations utterly reliant on having multiple choices), so playing the right song to the right audience shouldn’t be difficult. So where does it go wrong?

What the consumer wants and what he hears from a vendor may be horses of very different colors. Does it take a degree in communications to make sense to each other? No, if the primary elements of effective communication are in play. Hearing and listening are not the same thing, just as knowing and understanding can be quite different. Once a person can separate the two into distinct and actionable elements, another factor comes into the equation: critical thinking. These skills must be brought to bear at some point in a conversation to ensure understanding of what is said, rather than what one believes they heard.

Setting the proper expectation for an audience that believes it has a right to every option and every answer (and most importantly, the customer is always right) can be tricky under the best of circumstances. Throw in some technical jargon for the general consumer who doesn’t want to appear clueless and you have the first failure building at a rapid rate. How can you set the proper expectations when you don’t know your audience? As any writer will say, you can write a book but to make the best-seller list, you have to know what people relate to on multiple levels: intellectually, emotionally and financially. For example, a well-written book may be overlooked because the publicity surrounding it may have generated a higher price than the reader was willing to pay. Or, a general how-to guide might be great on details but shy on elaboration. Any number of factors can relegate the communication of words and thoughts to an arbitrary exercise in futility if it doesn’t meet the expectations of the intended audience.

The right way to communicate
There is a far more extensive group of factors in the expression of words and thoughts that an intuitive and creative individual will use to gain their end. Body language can signal the engagement of a prospective client that will reach the ultimate goal of closing the sale or indicate that further communication is not going to bring the desired result. Key are facial cues, as not everyone is fortunate enough to have a built-in poker face. In conveying a concept or thought, the person who maintains eye contact while consciously (or subconsciously) reading the the reaction in another’s expressions may be the difference between a failed presentation and a successful sale.

But wait, there’s more customer service communication that gets lost deeper and deeper in our overly scheduled lives…our overly scheduled lives! For the many who want it now not later, the need for instant gratification is almost an addiction. Think about it. When one’s focus is maintained only on the goal, other details are nothing more than minutiae, such as returning a phone call, answering an email, being prompt for an appointment or being adequately prepared to defend one’s proposition. And we all know, the devil is in the details, that in and of themselves may seem inconsequential until added to another set of factors that become the catalyst for a feeling of being disregarded or disrespected.

Just as hearing and listening are not the same thing, so to are follow-up and following through different sides of the same coin. Following up is the easy part because it takes one or two minutes, a phone call or email and it’s off to the next race. Closing anything, be it a conversation or a sale, cannot properly be done without following through on the commitment, the idea, the process and even the end result. A conversation may replay in one’s head multiple times before one truly understands the level of expectation involved by both parties. It is not over until a conclusion is reached, whether that is ‘no sale’ or “How is that new system working out for you? Is there anything more I can do to meet your needs?”

As Kelly Parks of Aquaman said during the Dealer Section Meeting at WQA Aquatech in Las Vegas, the communication should not stop after the sale is closed, the installation is completed or maintenance is scheduled. He related that one customer wanted to change to another company merely because she had not heard from him. Parks believed that no calls meant nothing was wrong. She believed, however, that not maintaining simple contact meant her business was undervalued. Merely calling to see how things are going further deepened the customer experience and has resulted in an ongoing and beneficial relationship. Parks noted that some customers just want to be able to talk to someone and that many complaints had nothing to do with the system. “Listen to them and you will probably find that what they are upset about has nothing to do with you. But by taking time to listen to them, you show an interest in more than the business deal.” In short, recognizing your customer as a person will cement their perception that you are interested in them as well.

Nothing really changes
Humans live in a cyclical world that changes with fads and trends, viciously attracting notice when something goes badly or with little attention if the expectation is met. The tendency to overlook a follow-up to a sale or service call because a customer’s expectation was met can leave a client with a sense of being added to a bottom line, not viewed as a valued customer. It’s never truer that the squeaky wheel gets the grease than when someone doesn’t get what they expect. Instead of using more grease, use more common sense, common courtesy and good communication. Wasting time on drama (that could be averted with a little attentiveness to bearing and being) is diametrically opposed to productivity. No matter what the medium, whatever changes may take place in society, they will not eliminate the inherent need for a customer to be satisfied.

Achieving that goal is paramount to long-term success, not just the right-now yippee moment. For a business to create a positive revenue stream, the likelihood of success depends on three elements: a great product, an equally great team and focus on the whole sales process, not just the end result. And here is where failure is the best teacher. What doesn’t work should be acknowledged along with time-tested training and reliable methodologies, the comparative value of which will exemplify a company’s commitment to customer service. In addition, the interaction of staff and customer can be mutually exclusive or a bonding experience. Sales techniques must be tailored to the customer, and with good communications skills in play, the right sales person can be paired with a customer to reach the most beneficial outcome for both. In the end, the objective remains the same, no matter how many different ways we approach it. Why then is so little effort made by people to communicate, when so many appreciable venues are now available? Email works to a certain degree, social media is gaining traction, but calling or visiting a client is the best approach to keeping customers satisfied.

The biggest obstacle to any problem is the inability to adequately express the problem and its scope in such a way that both sides understand the same thing. When that level of understanding is achieved, taking the necessary steps to resolution becomes a partnership, with both parties gaining the satisfaction of being winners. The water treatment industry has available a wide variety of training, both association and vendor, that can be of great value to the trainee, the company and clients. But too many seem to be missing out on those opportunities, leaving a gap in understanding. Until the focus shifts from the bottom line to the customer, it will take more failures for the presenter and the audience to find a way to talk to, rather than at, each other.


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