Excel Addition Is Not Showing Answer From Cell With Formula It’s Never Too Early for Customer Service

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It’s Never Too Early for Customer Service

Setting the Stage

The startup environment is one in which feathers are flying and those involved are in perpetual motion (both mentally and physically). Often, in the course of developing products and/or services, chasing down funding and looking for those first precious customers, the concept of a customer service organization falls way behind the back burner. And, while staffing this function and fully equipping it with all of the bells and whistles that are available to customer service organizations may not be the best move in these early stages, it is never too early to build the foundation for this vital function.

There are few, if any, entrepreneurs who would actively and knowingly reject the concept of customer service. Of course, everyone knows how important the customer is – right? Well, yes and no. While the idea of providing good customer service seems like an obvious one at any stage of a company’s life, the actual delivery of great service takes much more than just a passing thought or general presumption. In fact, the earliest seeds that need to be planted in any new organization are those representing “top of mind” placement given to customer service at every step in the growing process of that enterprise. This is absolutely not limited to those with the term “customer service” in their job title.

As previously stated, it is not necessarily the case that there will be anyone with a “customer service” title or primary functional responsibility in the early days of the company. It is, therefore, all the more important that those who are there at the beginning and who are, literally, setting the stage for the success (or not) of that new organization integrate the process of delivering superior customer service into everything that they do. So, without people explicitly tasked with the customer service function and in taking it beyond the concept stage, how is this done?

Systems and processes (never mind documentation) are not always a primary focal point for those attempting to achieve the above referenced “tasks” (i.e., product/service development, funding, early customer acquisition, etc.). However, more often than not, the need for these systems and processes rises to the surface relatively early in the building of a company. This may be the result of requirements placed on the organization by their current and/or future investors. That is a good thing. It would be an even better thing if the same level of attention paid to establishing systems and process for functions such as accounting, engineering development, sales and manufacturing was equally applied to the customer service function (marketing is often also an afterthought in this category – that’s a topic for another time).

Optimizing the Organization

Interestingly, one (certainly, I) could argue that customer service is the one organization in most companies that touches and interfaces with each of the others. Therefore, it might even make sense to get that one started first. This is true based on the fact that, by definition of the function (again, in most companies), Customer Service is the only place (and time) where/when someone inside the company is actively engaged with the customer while that customer is in the process of using the company’s product and/or service. This is one of the best (if not the best) opportunities to optimize everything else the company does (from accounting to engineering to sales and marketing).

For example, let’s assume that alpha Customer A calls in to report a bug on the newly released product they’ve just received from Company X. Beyond the basics of providing a prompt, professional and knowledgeable response to Customer A, Company X can (and should) benefit from that interaction in several other ways. Of course, the details of the bug being reported need to be clearly, completely and accurately communicated to engineering. Depending on the nature of the issue (often there is a very gray area between a bug and an RFE – request for enhancement), this information should also be shared with marketing. If that same customer is operating under a service contract, has outstanding (unpaid) invoices and/or has any other financially oriented “association” with Company X (i.e., a “pay for bug” reporting agreement), the accounting/finance function in the company may need to be notified as well. If the bug/issue being reported has to do with how it was shipped and/or received (especially, if it requires an RMA – return materials authorization), the manufacturing/shipping organization needs to get into the loop. Last, but never least, is the opportunity for sales to create and maintain an ongoing bond with their customer. In the case of a bug report, the salesperson responsible for that customer may want to place a follow-up call to assure that the customer was satisfied with the response to their call. Additionally, and (once again) depending on the nature of the issue, the salesperson may even be presented with an opportunity to “up-sell” another product and/or service to that customer.

Fire Prevention

Hopefully, this most generic of examples makes a strong case for the argument that the customer service function is most tightly integrated with that of the others in the company and, therefore, should be set up to optimize this relationship from the start. An equally compelling case can be made for preventing the fall-out associated with not making customer service a priority from the beginning. This particular circumstance can have much more serious and long-lasting consequences than that of losing out on the benefit of early resource optimization.

In even the most successful early stage ventures (maybe, especially in those), the lack of attention paid to the customer service function (in the form of systems and processes) will result in some serious fire-fighting “opportunities”. Let’s continue on with the earlier example of Company X. If Company X (like so many startups) has not taken the time to set up (even the most rudimentary) customer service processes and systems by the time they are in “production” (vs. alpha or beta) mode with their first customers, they may only (to date) suffer the loss of optimizing those early customer interactions.

This is generally the time when many new companies decide that it’s finally time to start thinking about the “Customer Service Department”. This may mean hiring their first one or two customer support representatives (technical support engineers) or may even lead to a search for the Customer Service executive who will build that organization. Again, generally speaking, the job of putting processes and systems in place is left to those who eventually are tasked with running this function.

As someone who has previously built and run several customer service operations, I don’t deny the satisfaction of starting something from scratch. However, putting (never mind changing) tires on the proverbial “moving bus” is not a pleasant experience for anyone (the new service person/people, the executive management of the company and, most especially, the customer). In fact, in the worst of circumstances, it can endanger good work done by the company thus far by compromising those critical early relationships. It also has the very real tendency to provide significant disruption in the rest of the business while all attention gets focused on putting out these new fires.

Best Case Scenario?

Up to this point in the discussion, there has only been talk of the risks/results and no more than a general reference to the cause(s). To better illustrate the point, a more specific example is in order. Okay, so now Company X has 15 new customers and each of them is in “production” mode (vs. alpha or beta) with Company X’s products/services. To date, all communication with these customers has been handled (and, very likely, not recorded) by representatives from Engineering, Sales, Marketing or even by the chief executive. While not ideal, this hasn’t caused any major heartburn (yet) on anyone’s part. In fact, to be fair, direct contact by all of these organizations with the customer in the early stages may be very beneficial.

Company X, having reached this production stage of the business, has now hired Customer Service Representative P and Customer Service Representative Q to begin taking customer calls from this point forward. Hey, there are only 15 customers – that should be plenty of coverage, right? Without going into too many details (every company, product/service and customer combination represents an endless number of possibilities), the best case scenario for the new customer service reps is that the calls will come in no more that two at a time (one for each rep). Further, this best case situation would assume that the questions/problems will be either easily answered/resolved by whatever training the rep may have received prior to answering their first call or that someone (i.e., an engineer) with that answer is readily available to assist. Staying with the best case, these first few callers/customers may not even notice that there has been a change. Further, these reps may even go so far as to document (in an Excel spreadsheet, in email or even on paper) the nature of the call for future reference. Taking all of this into consideration, under the best of circumstances, it still substantially limits the organization’s ability to optimize the customer service function (and to enhance its customer relationships).

A Touch of Reality

That was an example of a best case scenario – one that only exists in a “perfect world” (one in which we do not live). In a more likely situation, more calls will come in than only the 2 reps can handle at one time. Given that little or no consideration was previously given to customer service systems, it is unlikely that there is a queuing feature set up on the phones to handle such a backlog. This may send customers to a generic voicemail, an operator or (heaven forbid) an RNA – ring no answer – state. Now things begin to get interesting (and not in a good way). The customer has become aware of the fact that things have changed (and not in a good way).

Let’s add another level of “less than perfect world” reality to this picture. One of the customers gets through to a customer service rep and wants to follow-up on a call previously placed to Company X on an outstanding issue. Given that there are no systems in place and little or no record keeping to date, the rep (and the customer) is at a definite disadvantage. The best that can be hoped for now is that either 1) the individual who originally handled this issue (i.e., an engineer) can be identified and is readily available to take over the call or 2) the customer service rep takes a message and promises that someone will get back to the customer. Yikes! That does not present a very professional face of Company X to its (relatively) new customer.

Take that same customer, who is, by now, probably pretty frustrated at having to wait on hold (or worse), having to be transferred off to another person and/or having been told that someone will get back to them (because whoever answered the phone had no knowledge of this customer or their outstanding problem). Put this customer on the phone with their salesperson. Let’s say that the sales team is really on the ball and is “proactively” checking in with all of their new customers to make sure that all is well and even venturing so far as to look for another sale. What a surprise that salesperson will get when they hear, from their now very frustrated customer, that “No, things are not going all that well and what’s happening with my outstanding issue?” Whoops! A smart salesperson will do their best to de-ruffle the feathers and promise to get right back to the customer with status.

Now, where does that salesperson go to determine the current status? He may start with the new customer service department. Because there are only 2 of them, one probably remembers that customer (hopefully) and can tell the salesperson that the issue was handed off to an engineer. As the overall company is still pretty small, the salesperson is also successful in tracking down the engineer (who is, by now, fully immersed in trying to resolve a customer issue vs. working on new development efforts – development engineers really hate that). Push has come to shove and a resolution is in the making. A call back to the customer is made by the salesperson (not the customer service rep) and, for now, that customer situation has been resolved. Keep in mind that, throughout this process, little or no records have been kept on any of these interactions or their results. Is it possible that this same customer (or another one) will call again with the same or a similar problem? What will happen then?

The Good News

The above example is far from extreme in its assumptions. In fact, I’ve personally been privy to just such a set of circumstances (more than once). And, I only took the example so far – it could (and does) get much worse. And it is definitely exacerbated by more customers with more products and variations on those products over time. These not-quite best case scenarios present themselves over and over again in companies getting started and waiting until they really “need” a customer service organization before they deal with the requirements of customer management. In thinking this way, they neglect to recognize the benefits of incorporating the initial systems and processes that will support such an organization once it is in place. There is good news – it doesn’t have to be this way. And, Mr. CFO, it doesn’t necessarily have to cost a bunch of money to do it correctly and in a timely manner. In reality, the actual cost of doing it right up front is far less than that of recovering from the losses incurred by waiting too long.

So, how does doing it right look? The first step (and, arguably, the most important) is to create and maintain a customer service mentality throughout the process of growing the new company. This mentality needs to be shared amongst every single individual in the organization and must be one for which every person is also equally responsible (the customer belongs to the company, not to the customer service department). That’s still a bit on the vague side, I know. How about another example:

The company founders (two engineers, a marketing person and someone with the early funds) are having their first “official meeting” in one of their garages (it really does happen this way!). It’s a brainstorming session on how to put together the early structure of the company so that they’ll know what kind of resources they require in the short and longer term. While it’s not necessary for the “customer service department” resources to be on this agenda at all, the meeting should most certainly include how customers will be managed (and by whom) from that day forward. This includes an inherent acknowledgement that customer management is a vital function of this company and one that will always be a priority. That discussion inevitably leads to one of process and (even rudimentary) systems requirements. Quite literally, it must cover such basics as:

o How will the customer reach us?

o Who will be their primary/initial contact point?

o How will we track and share data accumulated during every customer interaction?

o What will be our commitments to both response time and follow-up and how will we ensure they are met?

It really does not get much more basic than that – nor does it get any more important. A company with the best product, the best profit margins and the best sales and marketing teams will still fail if the customer relationships are not properly managed. And it cannot start too soon.

More Good News

A bonus in answering the above questions (and adequately addressing them) will be that the overall optimization of the business referenced earlier is enabled. The tracking and sharing component (when effectively managed), in particular, will go a long way toward assuring that all of the functional organizations are on the same page (at least as far as the customer experience is concerned). There is also value in at least identifying the type of communication technology and methodology that will be used between the company and its customers as those same elements will also be needed for internal interface and that with the rest of the “outside world” (i.e., partners, vendors, investors, etc.).

While direct interface between the customer and various functional representatives (i.e., engineering, marketing, sales and senior management) affords many benefits, it is not mutually exclusive from establishing a customer management process. It is as though whomever happens to be on the phone with the customer at any particular moment is acting as a customer service representative (vs. as an engineer, a salesperson, a senior executive, etc.). This provides a smoother transition for both the employees of the company and, more importantly, the customer when there eventually are actual customer service representatives in place. It has the added benefit of demonstrating to the customer, from the onset, that customer management is a company priority (beyond that of just obtaining the customer’s money).

How Much is This Going to Cost Me?

The concept of minimal financial outlay was presumed earlier. This concept is based on the fact that the purchase of specific hardware/software systems meant to manage the customer relationship are not (necessarily) a requirement in meeting the proposed business objectives of customer management (at least, not right away). In the early days, the terms “system” and “process” are virtually interchangeable in that the process is the system and visa versa. For example, a “system” of managing customer information may just be the process of maintaining a written (online) log that is available to all of the functional organizations and representatives. This may be accomplished through means as simple as email or file sharing. Similarly, the “phone system” may be a distribution of the cell phone number for the “technology guru” with call forwarding to his/her backup when the initial call isn’t answered. Both of these examples may make use of technology; however, it is not in the form of an incremental expense to the new business; instead, it is just making best use of existing resources.

Not Just a Department After All

I suppose it could be considered trite to state that customer service is a state of mind vs. just a department. However, I cannot think of a better way to summarize where it must fit in the creation and growth of a successful enterprise. Stephen Covey references something called the “emotional bank account”. This same theory can be applied to the customer relationship. If properly managed, customers will put up with a lot more than they would otherwise because good customer management builds up “credits” in that emotional bank account from which to draw during the inevitable times when things don’t go quite as planned. Both the customer and company benefit from viewing their association as a relationship having value over time beyond any one sales transaction. It is with this mindset that strong companies are built and grown to last.

So, the next time you are in a position of contemplating a new enterprise (or investing in one), don’t forget that “It’s never too early for Customer Service!”

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