The Value of Service No matter what business you are in, it is hard to see a customer dissatisfied. Small business owners, like myself, often spend an incredible amount of time searching for, evaluating and selecting the right products to offer for sale. We take catalogs detailing product specifications to read in bed, listen for our customer’s experiences and enjoy reviewing the torture testing done by others. Then we bring in a couple samples of the product and to give it our own evaluation. It can be a laborious process. However, when you and your staff can offer your customer product details and personal experiences, you create a relationship where your customer values your expertise and becomes that customer becomes your favorite type of customer – a return customer. Such was the case with ATI’s complete polymer lower for the AR-15. A customer and friend purchased on based on my very positive experience and attached it to his newly built AR-15 upper. Several clips in, I noticed the shoulder stock projecting at an odd angle. Popping the upper receiver, we discovered the problem. The polymer receiver’s stock ring had cleanly snapped – to our collective surprise. Disappointed as we were, we believed the company was reputable (after all, I had written several positive reviews of their firearms and found them well made) and agreed that the true test of a purchase is how the company backs its product when something goes wrong. So the next business day we put ATI to the test. My expectations were simple after I explained the situation to the representative: empathy that a less than positive experience was had with their product, instructions on where to ship the defective receiver for evaluation and a time expectation to resolve the issue with a replacement. Instead, the silence was thunderous and I found myself asking if the representative was still on the line. He was. Gritting my teeth, I pulled answers from the reluctant representative. The warranty was completed for the customer online, an address to return defective merchandise was sought and eventually found and an overview of their evaluation process and time expectations were given – Thirty days to evaluate the receiver once received and another 90 days to decide whether to repair or replace the unit. I asked that ATI pay for shipping and eventually gained a commitment for them to send a shipping label. The representative was somewhat surprised that I would ask for them to pay shipping, after all “the shipping would only be $6 or $7 dollars!” But he guessed he could get one to me in a couple of days. As of this writing I am still waiting. At no time during the conversation did the representative express any empathy with either the customer’s distress or the position, that I as the dealer, was placed in with a valued customer. I hate to pile on the disappointment, but apparently this is not on the company’s list of addressable issues. In a market where customer patronage is more fluid than any other point in history, excellent customer service is the differentiator between purchases with your company and the customer going down the street. No one has a market niche that is so exclusive that the customer is forced to deal with only your company or only buy from your product offerings. Those with experience in coaching customer service representatives will recognize several poor performance indicators. The first is poor interaction training. Customers want to know that the company cares about the customer’s experience. And while many complaints and returns are the result of improper usage or unrealistic expectations, the company has the opportunity to both empathize and educate the customer while committing to a positive customer resolution. Second is low morale or motivation. Many managers make the mistake of placing a ‘warm body’ on the telephone without considering the image the ‘warm body’ presents. Even basic interaction training and step by step customer service procedures go a long way in maintaining the company’s reputation. And if I can offer a further bit of advice, if any of your staff is new or has poor interaction skills, separate your customer service representatives from your sales force. Many companies make the mistake of netting returns against sales thus disincenting new representatives from offering service solutions. Many would rather burn the customer than take a hit to their wallet. Finally, poor service can be, and often is, perceived by the customer as an indication that the company experiences frequent complaints about their products. Representatives are simply exhausted at having to deal with one negative call after the other. And as customer service surveys often tell us, on average, a positive experience is relayed to one other person while a negative experience is relayed to eight. Companies often think of the short term ramifications of a complaint or return as a hit to sales and ultimately the bottom line. They often forget that when customers rank what is most important to them when dealing with any business, service following the sale most always ranks in the top three considerations – often over price! Customers gravitate to and are willing to pay a premium for your knowledge and support if something goes wrong. Think long term.