In the past, many consumers would use the same contractors (HVAC contractors, electrical contractors, landscapers, painters, etc.) because they were familiar with their work and had established a relationship with them. However, recent economic pressures have increased the competition as consumers and larger contractors begin to shop around for the lowest-priced services instead of staying loyal to companies they have worked with in the past. In order to keep customers loyal in this competitive market and differentiate themselves from the competition, service providers need to provide stellar customer service that will keep people coming back. The right technology can provide contractors with the information they need to offer the best service -from having a customer history within easy reach to ordering the right parts for a repair - and can also help optimize service operations.
Communication Best Practices
An integral element of customer service is treating customers with respect and making clients feel confident in the service provider's skills. Listening is essential. All service providers should be trained to listen to customers' concerns and respond with an honest assessment of the problem. A company can encourage good communication skills by hanging a set of core values or principles on the wall that features the organization's customer service ideals. Employee customer service training should be intensive, and can include on-the-job demonstrations and written materials. Gone are the days when a company could afford to have service providers who were skilled at their jobs, but had a bad attitude and treated customers poorly (2). Additionally, companies can create a list of phrases that are acceptable and others that are not (for example, the phrase "I'd be happy to" can be listed as a better option than "Sure") (4).
Knowledge of the customer is also important, and using technology to store information on customer history will ensure that service of the account is well-informed. Sophisticated business management software can provide phone operators with a customer's history and job information quickly so they have everything they need to successfully handle any questions or complaints.
Furthermore, it is important to be honest with the customer. Companies that don't put customer service first may promise that a job will be done sooner than is feasible in order to land the job or they may estimate the cost of a project as higher than necessary. Even though the economy is tough, this is not the time to cut corners. Eventually the customer will realize the project is not completed on time or that the price was higher than it should have been, and they will go elsewhere in the future. The company may have made a little extra profit on one project, but it has lost the opportunity to gain a new regular customer (3). To help avoid this type of situation, technology can be used to manage project changes, track project schedules and track budgets vs. actual costs.
Improve Customer Service With Technology
Companies cannot use the excuse that they forgot about a job, lost the invoice or didn't understand the request and expect to retain loyal customers. Instead of ending a customer call and realizing that they misplaced important information about the job, service providers can integrate technology into their operations that will help them keep track of job details and client history (3).
Using a dispatch board system, such as those included in Sage Master Builder or Sage Timberline Enterprise, companies can easily manage their employees' schedules, making sure that no customer is forgotten. These systems offer features that allow dispatchers to pair technicians with the right skills to the right job and ensure that the necessary parts and inventory are ordered so that job can be taken care of on the first visit, instead of making customers wait for them to come in. Dispatch boards can facilitate communication with technicians in the field who may need guidance about a job they're working on.
Addressing Customer Complaints
Being proactive is the best way to handle customer complaints. If a technician in the field notices that the customer may be dissatisfied or concerned, he or she should ask if anything is wrong before the customer has to complain. This lets customers know that the company cares about their satisfaction. It can also save the company time if the concern is addressed right away, instead of receiving a customer complaint a few days later and sending a technician out for the second time. Remote access to Sage Timberline Enterprise allows technicians to use the system from the field and address issues in a more timely fashion. Managers should also take the time to follow up with customers about their experiences (1). After addressing a complaint, technicians can record the details of the job for future reference in technology systems like Sage Master Builder and Sage Timberline Enterprise.
When a customer calls in with a problem, train the phone operators to stay calm regardless of how agitated the customer may be. Even if the company appears to be in the right, start off by apologizing and accepting responsibility. Next, the company should make some offer to fix the problem. Always address customers by name, and repeat the issue back to them to show that it is understood, and that the company cares about their interests (3).
Don't stop at addressing customer complaints. One complaint may indicate a larger issue that the company can fix by making structural or operational improvements. Developing questionnaires and surveys can help provide insight into what customers value and what they want to see changed (1). In addition, reports can be developed using Sage software in order to flag problem areas within a service operation.
When creating a customer survey, businesses should start out by deciding what they want to learn and how they will address the findings. If customers are unhappy, companies can't ignore it. In order to stay in tune with customers, companies should try to conduct a survey at least once or twice a year. Through a survey, a business can measure company loyalty, assess the effectiveness of customer service and develop new initiatives. Make sure most questions are specific and targeted, while including a few open-ended questions that allow customers to bring up any concerns that were left out of the survey (5).
Customer Loyalty=Stronger Business
As companies try to stay competitive in the wake of the recession, customer service cannot be forgotten. Cultivating strong customer loyalty can strengthen a business. This is especially true for service providers, including HVAC contractors, electrical contractors, landscapers and remodelers. In addition to developing customer service programs and values amongst employees, companies can streamline the collection of information using technology that integrates service operations and accounting to provide easy access to schedules, performance budget vs. actual, and customer histories.
Diane Haines is director of strategic marketing, Sage Construction and Real Estate, Beaverton, OR. Sage provides construction productivity and real estate solutions to help contracting businesses achieve greater efficiency and profitability.
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