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The secret to customer satisfaction


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After fencing for 21 years, I’m considered an old timer in my industry.  I’ve seen new companies sprout up daily - rarely lasting more than a season or two - started by former industry workers who think owners have it so easy. They often approach me to learn the secrets, and the question I’m most often asked is: “How are you so good at keeping the customer happy?”

I give them the secret:

  1. We tell the customer exactly what’s going to happen.
  2. We tell them exactly when it’s going to happen.
  3. We do what we said we’d do.

There’s no trick and no gimmick. The key to customer satisfaction is setting the right expectation before the sale.

This starts with, and is largely determined by, the salespeople. While it’s in their personal interest to sell the moon, if your company makes only hardboiled eggs, then you’re sure to ruffle some feathers. Your sales staff (and you, in most cases) must be willing to risk losing sales in order to be upfront about your product’s shortcomings.

So there’s the dilemma. If you have to choose, do you pick massive sales or happy customers? Those who deal in manufactured goods have it easy in this respect – every package contains the same item – it’s the trades and service providers who have trouble managing expectations. Customers are buying a company and an expectation.

So who are the unhappy customers?

Unhappy customers are always disappointed customers. I thought it would be bigger (or brighter or yellower.)  When Mrs. Jones thinks she’s buying A and you give her B, it’s all going to end in tears. If you want to keep her happy, you have to be sure that you and Mrs. Jones share the same expectation - and that you give her nothing less.

At my firm, we’re a little bit dishonest. We try to show samples from the lower end of the spectrum. It’s like the saying “under promise, over deliver,” but we actually under-under promise. The beauty is that when the material comes in at a lesser quality than we’d like, it’s still as good as the sample and everyone is, if not happy, at least satisfied. And when the customer gets more than they expect (better than the sample - the standard thing) they become evangelists.

Running a business is easier when you don’t worry about callbacks and complaints. It took me a lot of years to learn, but the only way I’ve found to achieve this state of bliss is to dedicate your company to 1) Being completely honest about what you’ll deliver, and 2) Delivering it when you said you would.

I’d like to mention that I doubt having overly specific contracts and swaths of fine print is the answer. While it ensures expectations are documented, everyone feels pressured to meet the minimums rather than doing the best they can do.  When I say “Set Expectations,” I’m talking about hand-on-the-shoulder eye-to-eye communication between you and the customer. It’s fine to write it down after, but you need to have “the talk” in person.

I doubt there’s a way to make every customer happy every time (I still can’t do it), but setting expectations and meeting them should be the target we’re aiming for.

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David Sneed

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss; The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company. As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at  David@EveryoneHasABoss.com

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