An old proverb says a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But ask any IT solution provider, and he'll tell you that a customer with an existing account beats five prospects any day of the week.
With the IT spending slump showing no undisputed signs of recovery, solution providers have been wracking their brains trying to strengthen their relationships with existing clients. Why? According to some analyst estimates, the cost of getting new business is roughly 10 times higher than selling to existing customers. In today's tight market, those kinds of odds sound pretty convincing.
But what brings customers back? It's a question that has left many a solution provider perplexed throughout the years,one that has driven them to search for new ways to measure customer satisfaction and make sure their companies are doing everything possible to keep their clients spending money with them.
Don't Be Afraid To Ask
Some solution providers, like Jeff Moody, president of Waco, Texas-based Ping Technology, say one of the best ways to measure customer satisfaction is also the simplest,seeing whether the company receives repeat business. That, in addition to regular surveys, gives him a good idea of what his customers are thinking.
Others, like Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, use more formal programs to measure satisfaction. The global integrator has a companywide program in place called "OTACE" (On Time And Ahead of Client Expectations), which includes metrics that measure the percentage of jobs that came in on time and under budget. Satisfaction levels in various areas are also measured to ensure clients' needs are being met. "One of our most important strategies is to dominate on service, so we use OTACE as an approach to set the expectations with the client and then measure [results] so we can keep track of the performance overall," says CEO Terry Ozan.
No matter what processes they use, all solution providers polled agree on one thing: You have to keep the lines of communication open at all times so customers can voice even the smallest concerns before they grow into outright problems.
According to Dianne Durkin, president of Loyalty Factor, a Newcastle, N.H.-based consultancy, solution providers should set up a repeatable program where they survey clients on a regular basis. Questions that Durkin advises solution providers to ask their clients include: On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate our customer satisfaction? What are the top three areas where we exceeded your expectations? What are the top three areas we need to improve on? If you could give one message to our company, what would it be?
"They are simple questions that give you an invaluable amount of information because they are open-ended and customers will talk," Durkin says.
She also advises asking companies to ask these questions every few months,at least until the project they're working on is finished. For even longer projects, it's a good idea to conduct a more comprehensive survey, say, every six months.
And, in the mission-critical world of IT solutions, good customer service also means having strong crisis-management skills,recognizing that no matter how good your company's work is, problems will arise at some point, so you'd better have plans in place to address them.
"One of our internal mantras is that it's not just the impact our initial integration has on the customer, but the way we react when something breaks," Moody says. "It's inevitable that something is going to break,especially in our security practice,so it's imperative we react to situations that might be a crisis in the customer's mind."
Make It Real
Aside from asking the right questions, solution-provider CEOs have to make sure the notion of improving customer service becomes a real, attainable goal for every single person inside their companies. The biggest mistake most companies make is kicking off a customer-centric campaign with big signs and e-mail blasts,and then doing little or no follow-up, Durkin says. "If you do that, everybody in the company thinks it's the campaign du jour,as if today they're into customer service, but tomorrow it will be something else," she says. "That doesn't work."
Instead, companies have to develop a visible plan that addresses the importance of customer service,training employees on their specific responsibilities and sharing all the information that could motivate them and help them do their jobs better. "Maybe you can share some of the information you've gathered about the cost of getting a new customer," she says. "Then tell them how customer service is built into everything they do and explain what the performance measurements are and how they relate those back to every individual in the company."
To that end, Ping's Moody says his company provides monthly training to all its engineers and consultants on the art of understanding, establishing and exceeding customer expectations. "We use feedback from our online evaluation forms and phone calls to structure the sessions, as well as industry best practices, which include bringing in consultants from other firms to tell us how they provide customer satisfaction," Moody says.
Incent Your Staff
Once the importance of customer service is understood, you still have to incorporate real metrics to gauge performance,whether it's through individual employee-performance appraisals, bonus plans, departmental measurements or communication strategies.
That kind of strategy has been working well for Oak Brook, Ill.-based integrator Subject, Wills & Co. Aside from routine activities like phone surveys, the company provides a gated link on its Web site for customers to rate the company on a number of criteria, including sales processes, engineering expertise and overall solutions delivery. "Customers have to score between eight and 10 on the evaluation forms for the engineers and sales people to be compensated," says Heath Tow, account executive for Internet and network security solutions.
Global integrator EDS, Plano, Texas, became serious about customer satisfaction a little more than two years ago, under the supervision of CEO Richard Brown, when it implemented a Web-based concept dubbed the "service excellence dashboard."
"Every single one of our clients is placed on this dashboard, and we ask them directly for feedback on how we are doing, by line of business, service line, geography, etc.," says Bob Segert, managing director of corporate strategy and planning.
The beauty of the tool is that it lets EDS managers get direct, unfiltered feedback from customers so they can see what areas of the business need the most work. "We can sort all our clients based on whether [their status is] green (OK), yellow (problematic) or red (bad)," Segert says. "And we have clear measures on referenceability and renewability, since we get it straight from the horse's mouth."
But even if you have all the processes in place to measure client experiences and identify appropriate responses, all that work is useless if your company's management doesn't set the tone. You need to make sure company managers and supervisors act as good role models. "They have to practice what they preach, so everybody can model them," Loyalty's Durkin says. "People model the leaders; if they see a leader saying a negative word about a particular customer, they're going to do the same thing."
Once the message is clear internally, it's also important to communicate your company's mission early on with clients, identifying the specific areas you want to focus on. "Then you can say, 'If we fall down in these areas, we need you to tell us,'" Durkin says.