Replacement Contractor: Most home improvement customers are only going to buy a roof or windows once. Why is service an issue?

Micah Solomon: Exceptional customer service creates loyal customers. Loyal customers are less price-sensitive, more likely to refer, and more forgiving of your small foibles. That means greater profitability and less need to sell on a commodity-driven basis. Speaking as a homeowner, when it comes to choosing contractors, nothing matters more than a referral.

RC: What makes for good or excellent customer service?

MS: Speed. Today's customers expect speedier service than any previous generation. Not only speedier than their parents expected, but they want to be attended to even faster than they were at this time last year. In this age of iPhones and Droids and Amazon.com, you may as well not get back to customers and prospects at all if you're going to get back to them late.

RC: Is there one part that makes all the difference?

MS: Warmth. Bring some personality — some humanity — to your encounters with customers, online and off. For instance, why send marketing e-mails to customers from a "Please-do-not-reply-to-this" address? Invite them to respond directly. Then make sure someone answers those replies.

RC: Can a large organization treat customers in a way that's exemplary?

MS: Every customer should be remembered, as an individual. Ideally, you should work to achieve the computer-assisted effectiveness of a beloved bartender — the kind who would know your preferences, the name of your pet, when you were in last. Superb customer tracking systems — and an attentive staff — can create that same "at home" feeling in your customers, regardless of how big your business grows.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

RC: What are the most critical moments in making a good customer-service impression?

MS: Psychological studies demonstrate that customers remember the first and last minutes of a service encounter much more vividly — and for longer — than all the rest of it, due to the way human memory works. Make sure that the first and final elements of your customer interactions are particularly well-engineered because they are going to stick in the customer's memory.

RC: What other practices make an impression?

MS: Try to find ways to give your customers what they desire before they have to ask for it: Anticipatory service is the most direct route to customer loyalty. When a customer's wish is met before the wish has been expressed, it sends the message that you care about the customer as an individual. This may seem like it requires telepathic ability, but in essence it's a matter of paying attention and knowing your customers. And it's well worth the effort: The cared-for feeling a customer gets when her wishes are anticipated is where you will generate the fiercest loyalty.

RC: How do I hire the kinds of employees that are good at customer service?

MS: In a word, carefully. Hire when you have empty positions — it's worth waiting for the right person. It's hard to hear an unanswered phone keep ringing, but it may be worth the wait if you don't have the right applicant at the moment. Here's why: In an organization aiming for superb service, a single disagreeable or unresponsive team member can erode customer loyalty and team morale. That's why it can be better to leave a position unfilled rather than rushing to hire someone unsuitable. Customer excellence is most fully achieved once you become an expert at recruiting, selecting, training, evaluating, and reinforcing the efforts of service personnel.

RC: What type of person should I be looking for?

MS: I use the acronym WETCO to define the traits that should be there even before any specific skills you're looking at. That stands for:
Warmth. That is, simple human kindness.
Empathy. The ability to sense what another person is feeling.
Teamwork. The "Let's work to make this happen together" rather than the "I can do it all myself" person.
Conscientiousness. Detail orientation and an ability to use a follow-up system.
Optimism. The ability to bounce back and not internalize challenges that come from working with customers.

RC: How do I locate these people?

MS: Use psychological profiling. The Caliper survey is one that is available and has some validity. As your company grows, you will end up building a body of knowledge of how your best performers and your average performers scored on whatever instrument you used in hiring. That's valuable information you can incorporate into your hiring process.

Micah Solomon is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, trainer, and author on customer service. Reach him at 484.343.5881, by e-mail at micah@micahsolomon.com, or via his website.