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Be The Superior Supplier To Your Customers

In traditional management, all the attention is focused on the organization's external customer - the end users of the organization's products or services. When companies embrace a quality program, they widen their view of customers and begin paying closer attention to a second, equally important customer: the internal customer.

In most organizations, different departments and their employees are, literally, each other's customers. The ultimate aim of a company is to satisfy its customers. Only when departments can satisfy the needs of others internally can the organization satisfy the external customer For example, by understanding your particular organization, its people, and all of its services, you will know who to contact if a customer, business associate, or you need something that is handled by another department.

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Try this: On paper begin a chart with three headings: Department (for listing all your company's departments); Product (what those departments are responsible for); and Contacts (who in that area you can call for help). Keep this list on hand. Not only will you have a better understanding of where your job fits into the big picture, but you'll also be able to identify how you can help your coworkers. Here are other ways to be a super supplier to your internal customers:

  • Respond to their requests. When a coworker calls, get back to him or her quickly. Another employee may need your expertise to serve a client. You'll encourage coworkers to return your calls quickly if that's the treatment they get from you.
  • Be a team player. If you find a handy tip for performing a task, let others know about it. Share information about new products and services.
  • Lend a helping hand. Is that phone at the next desk ringing? Answer it. Does a coworker need files you can locate? Retrieve them. Is a colleague trying to serve three customers simultaneously while two more wait? Help out.
  • Communicate. Don't depend on managers to relay all the information you need. Take it upon yourself to keep the flow of communications going between work areas and departments. Get to know each other and understand each other's needs. Isn't that what makes customer service succeed?

How else can you provide quality service to all your customers? The following ideas will point the way.

What Would You Do?: 'Out Of Sight' Shouldn't Mean 'Out Of Mind'

Your Midwest salesperson needs updates on product availability and shipping schedules for potential customers. The problem is that she calls late in the day, just minutes before the office staff in the East is getting ready to leave for the day. Reps are letting the line go unanswered so they can leave on time.

The modern business often has a number of offices spread out across a country or even across continents. When you work with people who are removed from your immediate area, it's easy to forget that you all work for the same organization and share the same goals. But this long-distance operation doesn't dismiss the need for teamwork. In fact, it makes it even more important.

To achieve peak performance, teammates on all levels and at all locations must cooperate. Your support of coworkers who are in the field, at another office, or in another department is key to your ultimate success. If reps are ignoring calls from the Midwest sales rep because she calls late in the day, that salesperson is working at a disadvantage - and so is the company. A competitor is able to provide potential customers with quick answers to questions, while our salesperson must wait to obtain crucial data that may not come for days. A lack of cooperation works against potential sales and profits. All callers to the office are entitled to be welcomed up until closing time. Conversely, the sales rep shouldn't expect lengthy reports when coworkers are leaving for the day.

Discuss the time problem with the salesperson. She may not be thinking about the time zone difference and may have no idea she is causing an inconvenience. Remember, when you serve her, you are indirectly serving your outside customers as well.

Across Town Or Across The Hall? They're Both Your Customers

To his coworkers, Carlos seemed confused about who he had on the phone. A caller from another department in the main building was asking Carlos to send over a skid of paper that was stored in the warehouse. “Mr. Barnes, our truck leaves in 25 minutes,” Carlos told the caller “So, I'll have the paper there by 3 p.m. Is that acceptable? Great. Thanks for calling.”

As soon as Carlos hung up the phone, his coworkers in the warehouse began to tease him. “Carlos, that was Ben. You play basketball with him every Wednesday night. What's this 'Mr. Barnes' business?” Carlos was not about to be intimidated. “He’s Ben on the court. Right now he's my customer”

Carlos realized that his organization has two customers: those who purchase the product or service his company produces - the outside customers - and the other employees of the organization - the inside customers. “My job is to serve my customers in the building, so they can serve the customers who bring in money,” Carlos explains. “If we both don't do our part, that outside customer is going to do his business somewhere else.”

When you adopt this way of thinking, you realize that every interaction with a coworker becomes customer service. Requests from inside customers are handled with the same speed and efficiency as those from outside customers. Carlos may never see or speak with the outside customers who do business with his organization, but he knows that his work affects someone who does. This level of service carries over to how internal phone calls are handled. Carlos handles calls from his coworkers with the same courtesy and professionalism as he would from callers outside the organization.

When answering calls from within your organization, include the same elements you would when accepting calls from outside customers:

  • A friendly greeting. This greeting should include where you are (“Warehouse”), who you are (“This is Carlos”), and conclude with showing a willingness to help the caller (“How may I help you?”). If you are not sure whether the call is coming from inside or outside the company, use the greeting you give outside customers, which should include your company name.
  • Prompt, courteous service. Don't fall into the trap of giving only outside callers speedy service and putting internal customers on the back burner. Such prioritizing is dangerous because you may not be aware that your inside customer may be attempting to serve the needs of an outside customer If you delay serving your inside customers, they can't help outside customers quickly.
  • Regular follow-up and follow-through. Do you regularly call your outside customers to be sure their delivery arrived on time? Then why not also make such follow-up calls to your internal customers? Whenever possible, and practical, call or follow-up on requests from inside your company. Such follow-through can be carried out via e-mail or voice mail to increase efficiency. Carlos, for example, called the main office about one hour after the paper that had been requested was delivered. “It was a good thing I did,” he recalls. “The paper had gone to the wrong area. If I hadn't followed up, I'd never have known. And the original person who called me would have wondered why I never sent the paper over”

Everyone at your company serves customers. Employees should be equally committed to serving customers across town and across the hall. Such continuous internal customer service can help you beat the competition.

Service From The Inside Out

Although many of the ways you serve coworkers are the same as the ways you serve outside customers, there are ways your internal customers needs may be different.

What do our internal customers look for? Below is a list of five “basic quality indicators” that internal customers use to determine the value of coworkers' help. Internal customers require that you:

1. provide or have access to the resources required to respond to their requests, including emergency or unforeseen needs;

2. respond quickly - or, better yet, immediately – to requests for information, services, or staffing;

3. accommodate your procedures and policies to their needs;

4. provide ongoing progress reports with no surprises; and

5. accept responsibility for problems and setbacks – then solve the problems.

Share Information With Inside Customers

No one would dispute the importance of good communication with the customers your company does business with. But what about the importance of communicating with your coworkers - those “customers” you serve within your organization? Information sharing can be a powerful tool to aid colleagues , helping them to do their jobs more easily with fewer errors in less time. It can also nurture a team approach to achieving a shared goal: satisfying the outside customer.

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Use the following approaches to develop your information-sharing habit:

  • Capitalize on electronic mail. If you have access to e-mail, send messages to one or more individuals at the same time. In less than five minutes, you can tell an entire network what you learned from an important customer, or how you solved a problem. For example, you may be able to identify items that are most popular with customers; when complaints are most likely (and from whom); and which suppliers respond to requests in a timely fashion.
  • Provide tips on job forms. A California manufacturing firm encourages all those associated with a special job to write comments that will help everyone involved. Those in the warehouse, on the plant floor, and shipping and customer service employees share information about the customer, parts needed, problems encountered, and shipping arrangements. Group involvement through shared information leads to increased quality, productivity, and service.
  • Share articles of interest. Route articles you think coworkers might like to read. Then everyone can benefit from your research. In some companies, articles, newsletters, announcements, and brochures are passed around and then filed for reference.
  • Use staff meetings. Come to meetings with materials you may have obtained at a conference or trade show. Take the time before the meeting to highlight or underline what you think is important. Then briefly indicate what you will be circulating and why you feel it's worth reading.
  • Broadcast via the department bulletin board. Have you ever come across suggestions on how to do a job more effectively? If company policy allows, post the item. The posting habit is a simple, cost-effective way to distribute information, especially if people are in the habit of checking the board.
  • Share personal experiences. Let others learn from both your victories and your mistakes. Take a moment after a successful interaction with a supplier to let a coworker know what you learned. By sharing, you not only let others benefit from what you have learned, but they might share related information, too.

'Focus Sheet' Spells Quality Communication

Know what you want to say, and what your reader wants or expects to learn. That's the cardinal rule for writing effective business communications. And whether you are communicating with internal or external customers, your written communication should reflect the quality you've built throughout your organization.

Filling out a 'focus sheet' before you begin writing will help you stay on target. A focus sheet helps organize your thoughts on paper before you begin writing. It should address four issues:

1. The purpose of your communication. Ask yourself two questions. First, “Why am I writing this?” You may be writing to persuade, request, inform, motivate, explain, recommend, praise, or announce. Second, “What do I want the reader to do?” Although your memo, letter; or report may be informational, chances are you also want your reader to take some sort of action.

2. Your audience. You need to know if your reader will be receptive, indifferent, or resistant. Knowledge of your reader also will tell you how technical you can be in your writing, and whether you need to “soft pedal” your message or be more assertive. On your focus sheet, answer these questions:

a. Who is my reader?

b. What does he/she already know about the subject?

c. How will the reader use this document?

d. How will the reader react?

3. The bottom line. This is the key point you want the reader to remember. If you can summarize this in one or two sentences on the focus sheet, you'll find it easier to write the entire document. Your key point isn't always the most obvious, such as, “We're having a meeting.” You want the reader to know that, “This is a crucial meeting and it's important that you attend.”

4. Strategy. The timing of your message must be right or it's futile. If your intent is to solve a problem, make sure you're in time to deal with the situation. If you're too late, you're wasting your own and your reader's time – and damaging your credibility. A few strategy questions to ask:

a. Should I be writing this? At this time?

b. How should I distribute this document?

c. Should I consult with anyone before sending it?

d. Should I include a deadline for a response or action I expect my reader to take?

In this age of information overload, the ability to stay focused in your writing helps ensure that your message will be read. Your focus sheet will help you do just that.

Avoiding Communication Pitfalls

Do you have trouble getting your message across to others? Do you misunderstand their messages? Even if you were a perfect communicator you would still find yourself beset with communication problems due to the fact that you have to deal with all of us other imperfect communicators.

Communicating successfully takes effort. But you can become a more effective communicator by acknowledging the problems and pitfalls of communication and by finding ways to overcome them.

Here are guidelines for strengthening communication:

1. Recognize the inadequacy of communication. Communication is a complicated, symbolic, abstract process with an unlimited number of things that can go wrong and that usually do.

2. Think “existentially.” Remember that words are only symbols for reality in much the same way that maps represent territories. Frequently, things are not as they appear to be.

3. Find the total meaning in others' messages. Don't just listen for words. Look for gestures, expressions, the sender's posture, and tone of voice. And be conscious of these things when you are the sender.

4. Consider the source. Who delivers a message is usually at least as important as what is said. The better you know your communicator the more accurately you can assess message and motive. This recommendation is often ignored. It's a good rule of thumb to remember that people will tell you what they want you to hear.

5. Ask questions. A lot of confusion can be nipped in the bud by asking someone to repeat or rephrase their statement.

6. Be specific. Illustrate your point. Don't say, “You're causing us to miss our deadlines.” Instead, say, “By starting your assignment so late and not giving it the time it needs, you are making the rest of the team fall behind schedule.”

7. Communicate in everyday language. Don't use big words when there's a simpler way to say it.

8. Don't be afraid to say “I don't know.” Faking the answer only compounds the problems of ignorance.

9. Be aware of nonverbal communication. Punctuality communicates. Body language communicates. And silence communicates. You may be inadvertently sending wrong messages.

10. Be tactful. The Christmas party isn't the place to ask the boss for a raise. Location and frame of mind have a great deal to do with how well ideas will be received and exchanged.

Finally, don't let all of these communication concerns stress you out! A relaxed, open attitude will make people more receptive to your ideas and more willing to share their ideas with you.

Maybe I Will And Maybe I Won't

The words you use make a big impression - on yourself as well as on other people. For example, don't water down a promise with the words, “I'll try:” People who say, “I'll try to get this done by Thursday” are actually ducking responsibility for meeting deadlines and keeping promises.

“The project will be completed by Thursday” not only makes you sound self-confident, but it actually motivates you to live up to your word.

Boss Should Top Your List Of Customers

When you draw up a list of your biggest customers, place the name of your boss at the top.

For these reasons, relations are often tenuous between managers and their employees. For example, workers in many organizations think that the boss knows what to do. Meanwhile, the boss wonders about the problems of her employees. Better communication is essential to eliminate these questions.

Are You Soft On Quality?

So, you're soft on quality?

That's good news for service and empowerment. There is a sharp distinction between “hard” and “soft” quality.

Hard quality refers to the technology finance, systems, methods, and mechanics of quality programs. At one time, this was the only side of quality that received any attention. Today, soft quality - which focuses on such “people” traits as creativity, flexibility, and empowerment - is getting more respect as an important part of the quality picture.

But before it can get passed on, soft quality has to start with you, the frontline employee. Frontline workers play a crucial role because they're the first contact that people have with an organization.

Employeeship means management by everyone. It allows you to align company and individual goals, take initiative and responsibility, implement change, and create higher-quality products and services. Employeeship comes into play specifically during customer interactions, such as handling complaints. This process is called “service recovery.” You've been given ownership of the problem, and it's your task to follow through until the customer is satisfied. To do so, you must refine those soft quality skills.

Focusing on the customer; leading from the heart, and fostering a change in the culture are all 'people-first' strategies that will help your organization reach its goals.

'Partnering' Helps Uncover New Ways To Serve Customers

You can't buy an insurance policy to guarantee your future, but you can adopt a concept called “partnering” as the next best thing. Partnering is joining forces to deliver value to a customer. The partnering process involves “getting into a customer's shoes” and seeing how you can work with others to satisfy the customer.

The possibilities for partnering are virtually unlimited, but the best place to begin your partnering process is with all of your internal customers and suppliers, your boss, and your teammates. Here are five steps to take toward partnering:

1. Look at the big picture. Go beyond your immediate responsibilities and develop an understanding of how you, your team, and your company all fit together to meet customers' needs.

2. Visit customers and suppliers. Site visits build relationships. You can develop an understanding of who uses your product and how. And your customers actually learn to “see” you every time they receive the product. To get the most out of the visits, develop a purpose for the trip and an action plan to accomplish it. Make sure you and your teammates know what to look for and the kinds of questions to ask. And, gather the entire team together to “debrief” after the visit. Share observations and general thoughts, and decide how you can apply the information you've learned.

3. Participate in customer-focus groups. Customer-focus groups provide a forum in which to discuss customer requirements and needs. Some companies regularly convene customer- or supplier-focus groups. If your company doesn't, suggest having one to gain insight into customer needs. It is very dangerous to think you know what your customers want and need, without really knowing for sure.

4. Get in touch with your boss's goals. Ask your boss how you can help achieve these objectives. Make sure your team and your personal goals are in alignment with those of your boss.

5. Visit your teammates as they work. Go to your peers and talk to them about their ideas for improvements. Ask questions, give feedback, and provide recognition for their work. The more you know about what your partners do - and the more you share about your own experiences - the more fulfilling your partnering experience will be.

There's Value In Values In Quality Service

Service improves when you attend to people's basic social needs. Among these are the need to be included, wanted, competent, and in control. This is possible only when you share and live by a set of well-articulated corporate values. Some companies have well-defined values spelled out in policy manuals. Others have never formulated or articulated their values, but they do exist.

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The head of an enterprise is responsible for the values that influence employees. That's true in “top-to-bottom” hierarchies. However; the same principles apply to quality teams that have been empowered to operate in a “bottom-up” style.

Here's how some of the theories apply to you and your teammates:

  • Training. In some ways, a customer-service training program is similar to the treatment of an illness. A weak drug can cure if the patient has faith in the remedy. Conversely, a powerful drug will be ineffective if the patient doesn't take it as prescribed. If your employer has a training plan, he or she has shown the highest level of commitment to it. But it won't succeed unless the members of every quality team provide similar endorsement.
  • Quality substance. In trying to stimulate service awareness, some management's launch quality drives with gimmicks such as banners, buttons, T-shirts, slogans, hats and the like. There's nothing inherently wrong with such promotional aids if they generate enthusiasm. Even so, they represent only the form - rather than the substance - of quality service. An organization with a sound values system transmits it to people at every work level. Among front liners, the message is clear: Treat your customers with the same courtesy that you expect.
  • “Walking the talk.” This term usually is applied to executives and managers who go out and “do” instead of remaining in their offices. You, too, can adopt an active attitude. When you serve a customer, don't just talk about what your company stands for. Walk your way to customer satisfaction through hard work and dedication.
  • Philosophical values. H. Ross Perot outlined a code of philosophical-conduct values when he founded Perot Systems. In part, it reads:

We will not tolerate anyone who acts in a manner which will bring discredit to the company; discriminates against another; looks down on others; or tries to move ahead at the expense of others.

Whatever your opinion of Perot as a politician may be, put it aside and study his code. It's what teamwork and values-oriented customer service are all about.

The service you provide daily to your customers, teammates, and supervisors will help define the quality of your work every day.

Sell Quality By Making It Tangible

Your company is justifiably proud of the quality behind its products and services. But how do you “sell” quality to your customers? The intangible nature of quality has caused great difficulties for many professionals, including trainers, marketers, and, yes, salespeople. But there are ways to show people what quality is so they can reach out and touch it for themselves. Here are some suggestions to bring quality alive:

  • Demonstrations. If you sell a product that can be demonstrated easily such as a computer, telephone, or photocopy machine, you must be able to show exactly what it can do and how easy it is to operate. Remember, your competitors probably have similar products with similar features. So find a way to distinguish yourself.
  • Guarantees. Stand by what you sell. A company with a guarantee of “100 percent satisfaction or your money back” carries a lot of credibility: The guarantee is simple: If you don't like it, return it. No problem. But companies that have complex, confusing guarantees put off customers who think the company is trying to hide something.
  • Testimonials. There is nothing more convincing than a company's competitor who is successfully using your product. Also, major clients such as Fortune 500 companies and federal and state governments, carry a lot of weight. Make the most of these special customers by asking for testimonials. Make it a point to use them at every opportunity.
  • Knowledge. Quality salespeople need to know and understand their own business and their products or service. But more important is their understanding of the prospect's business. This is where you can differentiate yourself from others in the pack. Find out what the prospect wants rather than just talking about yourself and your company. Filling holes in the prospect’s business will give you more credibility than a million flawless demonstrations.
  • Reputation. If your reputation precedes you - and it’s a good reputation - you're a step ahead. You can build one by using referrals and getting your name out in the industry. Take on speaking engagements, write articles, and get involved with professional organizations.
  • Flexibility. Being able to roll with the punches is a valuable trait. As prospects throw objections your way, overcome them and answer all questions, responding quickly to objections and complaints.

Quality? Dentists Rate Tops

What occupational group provides service of the highest quality? You may not be looking forward to your next appointment, but dentists rate as Number One. Airlines occupy last place.

Banks were in the middle of the pack. Gas and utility companies scored high marks. Physicians and hospitals were ranked just above airlines in the “worst” grouping.

Don't Trample On Customer 'Rights'

Customers are your most important asset. And, as such, they have certain rights and it's your job to uphold those rights. No quality-service program will succeed if any of these rights are trampled on.

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So, in ascending order; here are your customers' top 10 rights and your top 10 service concerns:

10. Customers have the right to get what they want. The days of 'If you build it, they will come' are gone. Businesses must start asking customers what they want and then give it to them.

9. Customers have the right to receive a “Wow.” Because so many aspects of life are stressful, shopping for just about anything should be fun. You should provide service so incredible that patrons will exclaim: “Wow!”

8. Customers have the right to hear “Yes.” When customers are told that 'We can't do that,' they'll walk out and spend their money elsewhere. You must solve problems immediately.

7. Customers have a right to complain and get satisfaction. Consumers may be mad as hell, but many are still taking it. Soon they won't tolerate it any longer and will seek revenge through patronage to your competitors.

6. Customers have the right to receive value. People work hard for their money and want a product that's worth the price. Shoppers will pay a premium to get quality.

5. Customers have the right to buy goods that work as promised. Too many product claims fall woefully short when put to the test. You should never suggest that an item will do something that's beyond its range.

4. Customers have the right to expect that everyone will work to serve them. Anyone who interacts with a customer represents the entire company. If you need help to meet your patrons' requests, ask for it.

3. Customers have the right to have it done properly the first time - and every time. The biggest complaint about repair and delivery service is that it wasn't done right the first time. Nothing irks a customer more than to buy a defective product and waste time returning it.

2. Customers have the right to be treated with respect. For example, interrupting a sales transaction to answer the phone is rude and irresponsible. Work out a list of “service rules” to prevent such disrespect.

1. Customers have the right not to wait in line. Waiting wins the “bad-practice trophy” and rates as the No. 1 consumer complaint. Everyone's time is precious. No one should be forced to wait more than a few minutes.

Fast Delivery? Sold!

How fast you deliver a product or service is often a significant factor in a potential customer's buying decision. Make sure you know your organizational delivery schedule, why delivery takes what it takes, and if and how exceptions can be made in emergency situations. No matter what your job function, you should make it your business to know.

The Customer Isn't Always Right

Contrary to common thinking, the customer may not always be right, says Herb Kelleher; CEO of Southwest Airlines. That's hardly the answer you would expect from the head of the company that bills itself as the “Love Airline.” But that's what Kelleher once told his employees.

According to Incentive magazine, Kelleher proclaimed this bit of counter-culture philosophy to show that he stands behind the decisions of his employees, which might include denying a customer a boarding pass. “I think you do an injustice to your people if you say the customer is always right. The guy who abuses our employee by yelling and screaming - is that person right? No! We tell them they are wrong and we don't want to carry them. Otherwise, you betray your folks,” the airline CEO was quoted as saying.

Key point: Think about the needs of your customers - both internal and external. But use your good judgment if the customer wants something that is unethical or impossible.

Quick Tips

  • Keep a quality log. When you get informal feedback (good or bad) about the quality of work you send to your internal customers, jot it down. Review your log periodically to see if you can spot trends that may require your attention.
  • Build in extra time. When asked how quickly you can deliver something, ask for time to check. Find out how long it will take, add a day, and promise to have it there by that date. Then deliver it earlier. Your customer will be pleasantly surprised. Caution: Use this strategy on non-rush orders only!
  • Maximize tracking time. Keep a list of the work schedules of your customers, including internal ones. List starting and quitting times, lunch hours, and busy periods. Include the best times to catch them at their desks. You'll spend less time trying to track people down and more time actually doing business with them.
  • Give complaints quick action. Customers with complaints expect action within 48 hours. Also, most will put up with being transferred to a second employee - but not a third one. Do your best to respond much quicker than customers will tolerate.
  • Prioritize requests. You’ve probably heard the saying: “You can't please everyone.” But in business, only pleasing yourself isn't enough. To find a happy medium, make a list of the people who it's important that you please. This list may help you better prioritize the jobs and requests that come your way.
  • Put your quality commitment in writing. The act of writing out your company's beliefs, policies, and goals - and how those apply to you - will help you better understand and appreciate this dedication to quality. Share this credo with customers to show you mean business.

Be The Superior Supplier To Your Customers

In the old way of doing business, all the attention was focused on an organization's outside “paying” customer. Today, there is a realization that the better we serve each other inside the organization, the better we'll be able to serve all our outside customers. Companies utilize “partnering” programs as one way of “getting into the shoes” of internal and outside customers. Some, form quality-improvement teams to learn how they can best respond to their customer's needs. They also encourage communication within departments through training opportunities.

Not only will you become more indispensable to your organization when you strengthen the service you provide the customers inside your organization - you'll increase your worth in the job market, where the need for top-notch service providers is increasing.

What You Can Do

  • Create a chart that helps identify internal customers. Serve them as conscientiously as you do your outside customers.
  • Strengthen your writing and other communication skills.
  • Take ownership of complaints and problems. Apologize for them and resolve them.
  • Respond to requests with integrity.
  • Respect all your customers' rights.

When you're a super supplier to the next person on your line, or to the department down the hall, or to the regional office 2,000 miles away, you're strengthening the links on the chain that eventually lead to your outside customers.

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