Who Are Your Customers?

Q: Who are your customers?

A: Everyone who comes in contact with your business, via telephone, Internet, fax, or in
person. Everyone.

Notice that this answer mentioned nothing about spending money with your
company. Money doth not a customer make. Granted, some customers are better than
others, and we will discuss the hierarchy of customers in a moment. But first, let this
idea settle in: Everyone who comes in contact with your business is your customer, and
is entitled to, and deserving of, the best service that you can provide.

Jan Carlzon, in his excellent book Moments of Truth, calls every interaction between a
customer and a business a moment of truth. Every interaction, every touchpoint, is an
opportunity for a business to shine, and to gain a loyal, lifelong customer. Even the
slightest interaction can have meaningful impact if delivered with the right feeling at
the right time. Smart businesses know this, and prepare their employees – all of their
employees, not just ones designated as Customer Service – to handle every business
related interaction with care, dignity, and courtesy. One of the toughest hurdles for any
business is to gain meaningful interaction with a prospect. So if someone contacts your
business, regardless of how or why, you have been given a golden opportunity to gain a

Not everyone gets this. Some otherwise very intelligent people don’t get it. I had the
Chief Technology Officer of a prominent Internet search engine and provider of
premium content tell me, in no uncertain terms, that my customer support team should
not be “wasting time” by responding to people who were complaining about the length
of time it took to get their web sites listed on the company’s search engine. “Those
people are not our customers!” he emphatically told me in a weekly management
meeting. I disagreed, asking him how valuable is a search engine without the sites listed in it?

He countered that the search engine is not what made the company money;
it was the premium, pay-per-view content, and those were the customers that we should
be concerning ourselves with. I acknowledged that the content subscribers should, and
do, get excellent care, but that it was not an either/or situation. The people wishing to
list their sites on our search engine all have friends, family, and colleagues. Heck, they
have web sites that potentially reach thousands of people. It does not make any
business sense to risk angering this group of people, by ignoring them or giving them
second-class service. But this technology wizard, a senior vice president of the
company, would not concede this point. “They do not give us revenue, therefore they
are not our customers. End of story.”
The saddest part of this story is that while this occurred in management meeting, there
was no one else who chose to speak up on the side of the customers. Not the Director
of Marketing, not the Director of Sales, none of  the Marketing managers, not
even the CEO himself.

I will acknowledge that all customers are not created equally, and that those who
spend the most money with your business are deserving of the best service and the top
priority that you can deliver. Other customers, over the course of time, show
themselves to be malcontents for whom you can never do enough. The operative
phrase here is “over the course of time.” Some of your biggest complainers turn out to
be your best customers, by forcing you to raise the bar on your service. As painful as it
may seem, these customers should be sincerely thanked. Other customers simply
become a major pain in the butt. Most intelligent business people can figure out the
difference, and when necessary, they can “fire” the customer who is more trouble than
he is worth. But nonetheless, there has to be a baseline of service that is provided
to every person atevery moment of truth.

I did some customer service consulting with an online entrepreneur, whose customer
service and support was mostly via email. While his business was a start-up, and
operating on a shoestring budget, I advised him that every contact to his business was
deserving of a courteous response. He disagreed, and mandated that his customer
service reps only respond to those customers who had spent money with his business,
or looked like they were about to. Due to the vagueness of his web site, there was a fair
amount of misunderstanding in some people’s minds as to the nature of his
business. Some of these people wrote some nasty, ill-informed emails. My feeling was
that some of these people could be turned around by first allowing them to vent, and
then by informing them of the true nature of the site without making them feel
stupid. The entrepreneur disagreed, saying that time spent responding to, and
answering charges made by ignorant people was time that could, and should, be better
spent handling questions and requests by paying customers. He said he couldn’t afford
to pay people to enlighten the ignorant. My belief is that he can’t afford not to.

The mysterious thing about business is that we never know where our next big
customer is coming from. We market and sell to those whom we think have the greatest
need for our products or services. But in all honesty, how often are any of us really
swayed by sales pitches or marketing pieces? The fact is, most of us would sooner be
swayed by the story of a friend or colleague who had a positive experience with your
business. This applies to the single consumer as much as the captains of industry.
So the next time you receive a scathing business email from someone without all the
facts, take the time to patiently and politely respond, acknowledging their anger, but
providing them with the facts that they need to make an educated decision about your
product or service. The next time a harried mother comes into your store with a
squirmy toddler, asking if she can use the employee-only restroom, cut her some slack
and let her take care of her kid. These people may or may not become paying
customers, but at the very least, you’ve treated them with courtesy, and that’s a
reputation that can only enhance your business in the long run.

— Charles E. Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2002 / All Rights Reserved

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