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CONTEMPORARY COURTESIES

Etiquette column: Customer service speaks loudly for business

Friday, February 15, 2013 - 12:01 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at www.news-sentinel.com.

Q. Karen, what do you think the difference is between companies that are known for excellent customer service and those that don't enjoy that reputation? I am often annoyed, as a consumer, when I am in a place of business and the employees act as if it is an inconvenience to wait on you or they are so busy chatting with co-workers that you are made to feel invisible.

A. I strongly believe that training, upfront and ongoing, is key in developing and maintaining an organization that delivers excellent customer service, regardless of what you sell or what service you deliver. Superior customer service doesn't happen by accident; it happens by design. Those companies that are famous for their service achieve that reputation because of detailed training and a strong corporate culture that puts the customer first. Customer service is an attitude, not a department.

Keep in mind that perception is reality in the marketplace. A consumer's perception of bad service or a bad experience in part, or total, can overshadow a good outcome.

Even if a company doesn't provide extensive training in customer service, there are still ways individuals can distinguish themselves in the workplace and leave their own special fingerprint on a customer's experience. We are all our own public relations agents. A poor agent impacts oneself and the organization for which he or she works. Evaluating yourself and your style may be essential. Here are some key points that can help you deliver superb customer service:

•Be nice and smile. A pleasant demeanor and a smile are very powerful.

•Greet people. Stop what you are doing, look up and acknowledge clients/customers. Stop chatting with co-workers. If you're on the phone, acknowledge with a nod and a smile.

•Be sensitive to your client's needs. The more elite your client base, the greater the expectation for service and courtesy.

•Be flexible. Learn to work outside the box. Rules and protocol can be flexible. Knowing when to bend is an asset. Do not engage in a power struggle. You are there to serve. Confrontational reactions can be very demeaning to a client/customer. Diplomacy is an art and can be learned.

•Be prepared. Anticipate a consumer's need for information, whether it is in print or verbal. Know what you offer and about the availability of an item or service.

•Be willing to follow through. If you don't know the answer, find someone who does and follow through to make sure the consumer is satisfied.

•Be professional. Maintain a professional work environment with speech, demeanor, dress and behavior. Never criticize fellow workers or complain in front of a customer.

•Be responsible. Take responsibility. Anticipate client needs and be willing to do more than your defined job. Help others. Make yourself an asset to your organization.

•Be mindful. No one would be there without the client! Clients need to know you can do the job, but they also need to know you care about doing a good job.

A good experience is often taken for granted, but a bad experience is often shared with others and becomes the lasting impression for a client/customer. This bad impression is damaging to the reputation of any work situation.

According to the White House Council on Consumer Affairs, it costs five to six times more to get a new customer than it costs to keep an existing one. Proper handling of an irate client can result in satisfaction up to 95 percent of the time.

Ninety-six percent of unhappy customers will not tell you they are unhappy; ninety-one percent will simply take their business elsewhere.

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email clarson@news-sentinel.com, and we'll forward it to her.