Consider customer service as one of the cornerstones to building and preserving the best client relationships.   As a small company owner, you’re well aware that your current clients are among your most valuable contacts. It goes without saying that they are the primary source of your business and income today. What’s more, you probably already know that the time, energy and cost of landing a new customer far exceeds what you have to expend to keep existing clients.
In my position, I’ve learned a lot about the value of a customer-focused approach firsthand. We constantly keep tabs on what we do and how well we’re responding to customers. After all, we field as many at 15,000 calls a month during peak periods on everything from complex investment questions concerning variable annuities to the rules and regulations governing retirement plans.

We’ve seen that it truly takes a team effort. It’s also clear to us that the best customer service is just as much proactive as it is reactive. Great follow through is equal parts anticipating problems and addressing them swiftly and effectively.

A Plan of Action
Regardless of the size of your company, there are a few steps you can take to bring quality customer service to your clients.

If you want to make big improvements in customer service, you first have to figure out a starting point. Think of numbers as a base. Before you start counting, however, be sure to determine which metrics are most important to your business.

At The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, we tape between 10 percent and 20 percent of customer calls for later review. We also keep detailed logs on numbers of calls, resolutions and other measures. We make comparisons over time to pinpoint both our strengths and weaknesses.

Steps To Take

Some of the measurements you might consider include:

  • The number of calls fielded by your team or each agent;
  • The average number of minutes spent on responses;
  • A percentage for success rates in resolving customer issues in one call;
  • The number of follow-up calls required to resolve a problem.

Once you’ve set metrics and gathered the numbers, turn your attention to another focal point: reshaping company culture to embrace the very highest standards of customer service.  Step one is getting the message out that you’re focused squarely on customers and their needs. Underscore the goal to provide solutions and quick resolutions to issues that customers bring up. Make it a point to call out, praise and possibly reward flexibility. Encourage team members to step outside rigid boundaries. It’s important to stress that the goal is to provide what’s best for customers even if that means going beyond the ordinary. Define the extra mile – whether that is an extra call back, checking in later with customers, or investigating new solutions.

Steps To Take

  • Compose straightforward  handouts and pamphlets that clearly articulate your company’s customer service standards;
  • Work up more personal, face-to-face gatherings to jumpstart your progress. Get teams together to share ideas and hash out solutions;
  • Organize meetings during lunch to discuss issues and brainstorm solutions;
  • Schedule seminars or retreats for team-building exercises.

Create A Mentality
Now examine ways to adapt your core processes to the goal. It’s next to impossible to create a company culture focused on the needs of your customers if what you do is cumbersome, inflexible and often wastes time. Bear in mind: The process takes time and introspection. You’ll need to invest resources and your collective commitment over a period of months to ensure a new of thinking permeates everything you do.

Steps To Take

  • Seek the input of the very people at your company who deal directly with customers and clients. Who else knows better ways to cut red tape and speed solutions?
  • Support open, even brutally honest observations. Take the initiative and don’t be afraid to address the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Encourage anonymous suggestions.
  • Consider ways of setting aside ranks to promote a frank and honest dialogue. Invite everyone to speak up and offer honest insight.  Appoint customer service reps to lead these discussions. 

Listen To What Customers Are Saying – Again
Yes, measuring response times and crunching the numbers on resolutions is a start, but don’t forget that good service is always centered on listening to your customers.

Steps To Take

  • Create feedback loops and develop surveys, questionnaires, callbacks and other means to collect feedback.
  • Gather up this feedback and couple it with the metrics you’ve tracked. Analyze both closely.
  • Don’t just make changes based on the input you collect – let the customers who’ve shared their views know you’ve taken action based on what they’ve shared. Reach out to speak or to write to customers who have helped directly. Make sure they know you heard them and took their comments to heart. 

Key To Your Future As Well
Customer service isn’t just about what you do today. It’s a way to leverage your business to generate future prospects as well. Deepening strong relationships yields more opportunities and sales of your services and expertise. Pleased clients make referrals to others that can lead to more business for you as well. You’ll find that focusing your team on the short- and long-term benefits of the very best customer service pays dividends both now and for years to come.

Kim Flemm has been serving the retirement industry in an operations and client services capacity for over 25 years. Prior to joining Guardian 13 years ago, she was the Director of Operations at Diversified Investment Advisors. Kim is responsible for both the Annuity and 401(k) back office and customer service operations for Retirement Solutions. She is a member of LIMRA, SPARK, American Society for Pension Professionals and Actuaries, as well as of the The Retirement Services Roundtable for Executives. She has several LOMA and CEBS designations and holds a FINRA OS 99 license. Kim resides in Bethlehem, PA.