The immediate nature of customer service (“I need a replacement part now!”) — plus corporate emphasis on quarterly profits — often results in companies’ failure to develop a long-term strategy for customer service. Pride, misplaced priorities, short-term profit orientation and a failure to understand the realities of today’s competitive service economy are all reasons why service strategies don’t get the serious attention they deserve.

Even if customer service structures and tools are in place today, they’ll likely need to be different tomorrow. Customer service isn’t a quick fix or a policy to be implemented one time that lasts forever. Instead, managers should view customer service as a long-term strategy on par with other critical business functions — and worth the most advanced thinking. It requires unremitting management commitment and employee enthusiasm over a long period, so that outstanding service can continue to work its magic on customer loyalty.

Initiating a service program, giving it a noisy send-off, then publishing a quarterly motivational article in the company newsletter, plastering the walls with posters, and sending an annual letter to employees extolling the importance of service are all well and good. But don’t expect employees will read the article and spontaneously deliver good service. They won’t.

This short-term approach is not service. Service is service.


Develop a service strategy

Fortune magazine defines service strategy as “knowing exactly which customers you want to serve and figuring out what kind of service will loosen their purse strings.”

Strategy must be developed and implemented through impartial analysis, skilled people management, intense concentration and commitment — along with serious spending.

Begin by analyzing these areas:

  1. All policies and procedures — they must be customer oriented.
  2. Work flow — it should promote reliable delivery of customer orders.
  3. The company’s capability to react to unexpected events— create a contingency plan that ensures service to customers will continue uninterrupted when the computer blows up or a tornado blows in.
  4. Customer wants and needs — they must be considered at every step.

The goal of any service strategy should be to systematize — to institutionalize — a customer service program that’s well established, for the long term, in the culture of the company.


3 effective, long-term customer service strategies

These three important service strategies are more than business initiatives; they’re attitudes that should be embedded and celebrated throughout the organization.

1. Service as a product. Most buyers don’t have the technical knowledge they need to make the best choices when they’re purchasing products such as electronics, software, cars or home appliances. They want reassurance that support and service will be available if problems arise. View service as yet another deliverable you offer, one with real value.

2. The customer is the boss. One service-minded company, Bio-Lab, has a mission statement that places the customer at the center of nearly every business function. The statement reads:

“The mission of the customer service department is to retain and to encourage increased business from customers by efficiently and courteously satisfying their needs with respect to ordering, shipping, invoicing, handling claims and adjustments, and responding to inquiries, complaints, and related activities.”

This slogan — “The Customer Is the Boss” — appears on signs in every office of Bio-Lab. But it’s more than a message; it’s grounded in the company’s very core.

3. Strive for reliability. Reliability means consistent performance that meets the expectations of all your customers all the time. Admittedly, this is ideal. But a superior service program will come very close to achieving the ideal.


Don’t forget to empower your employees

Companies often throw up roadblocks — complicated approval processes, sales initiatives, scripts that dictate customer communications — that hinder employees from exercising judgment and doing the right thing.

It’s critically important to examine and to correct any policy or process that gets in the way of employee performance. Even in companies that are not particularly customer-focused, most employees believe in — and take pride in — providing excellent service. A company should instead offer guidelines that allow for flexible and situationally appropriate decision-making to resolve customer problems.

Companies that view service through a single lens — that of customer complaints—are missing the larger, longer-term picture. Service isn’t just a game plan to satisfy unhappy customers; it’s an ongoing strategy that makes every interaction between every employee and every customer at every contact point a positive one.

John Tschohl is a recognized customer service expert drawing from years of experience sharing methodologies, tips and best practices. This is one in a series of articles from John that we will feature in the Expert Corner on the blog.