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The real differentiator is customer service

Nowadays, product quality is a given in the air conditioning sector. So what can manufacturers do to differentiate themselves from their competitors? Zubair Ali has an answer
While there are obviously some differences, the air conditioning industry has to be honest and say that most manufacturers produce similar products at similar prices. So why should an installer or distributor choose one manufacturer over another? The answer is often customer service.

Price plays a part - putting together a keen price package is an important sales tool - but there will always be someone who can just shave that and beat you. What keeps customers coming back time after time is customer service and the rapport you develop with them.

When I joined FG Eurofred just over a year ago, I was given the task of introducing changes to enhance that by improving our levels of customer service. While we have come a long way, I am not saying we have got there yet as there are always ways to improve.

Perhaps the most important part of customer service is one of the simplest concepts, but still something that many find hard to provide - answering the phone in a timely manner. We have all used call centres and help lines and the thing people hate the most is having to hang on for ages. Our customers do not have the time to do that. If a company gets a reputation for being difficult to get hold of, the customers will simply go elsewhere.

Recently we have installed a new telephone system which measures call traffic, providing us with figures for lost calls (a crucial performance indicator), busy periods, efficiency rates of our people and a whole lot more.

While answering calls quickly sounds simple enough, it is not always that easy to implement. One person can often be tied up for an extended period on a technical issue and you do not want to rush a customer that needs a lot of help, but other customers are ringing all the time and needing attention. We have tackled this by changing our schedules to ensure we have the right number of people available at the right times and by being flexible.

For example, when all the members of our technical team are talking to customers, the customer services team intervenes by offering support or at least arranging a speedy call-back.

The next important point is to tell the customer what is happening, which can be done by phone, e-mail or text. This is such an easy thing to do, but often gets overlooked. A customer should never have to chase a supplier.

If you tell a customer something will happen, you have to make sure it does. If these promises are not kept, there can be a knock on of dissatisfaction right down the line to the end user.

It is also hugely important to use these technical and sales calls to build a rapport with customers, not just deal with why they called you and hang up. Most of our calls come from people and companies we deal with all the time, so we can build up very good relationships with them, which keeps them coming back to us in preference to others.

Recruitment process changed

To ensure we have the right customer-focused people, we have changed our recruitment process by giving greater weight to customer interaction, which comprises rapport building, positivity and empathy.

It is not just the salesman in the field or the team on the phones that has to sign up to customer service. Each part of the company has its role to play, from invoicing and purchasing, which ensures we have the right stock in the first place, to the warehouse, which has to ensure the products are packed correctly and go out on time to the right addresses.

We have become more proactive in providing the information our customers seek. For example, at Fujitsu our customers used to frequently contact us seeking price, availability and substitutes of spare parts, so now we send out a daily report detailing this information. Another example is our weekly spare parts 'back-order' report - customers used to call us for these, but now we send them a weekly report, which makes it easier for them to update their customers.

Customer service, of course, has to be right all the way down the chain to the end user. For most of our sales, our direct customers are our distributors, but we are lucky in that they are very good at helping their customers; providing help with designing systems and other technical assistance.

Underpinning all the above are a set of key rules I have introduced, which directly impact on our ability to meet customer expectations and are designed to give individuals the scope to continually challenge what we do, and to consider how we can continually improve our customers' experience.

Engaging staff through clearly defining company, team and individual goals ensures there is clarity and accountability of each team member's actions. Linking this to a regular performance review also allows us to keep on top of how we are doing and how we are relating to customers.

To ensure we provide quick responses to various issues, clear procedures have been introduced to allow for quick decisions, many of which are systemised to help us protect the customer and the business against human error. This allows us to make the most effective use of the resources available.

Finally, it is imperative to keep trying to improve the customer experience. Every transaction should be memorable for the right reasons.

//The author is customer services manager at FG Eurofred //
7 March 2013

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