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Perfecting Service Management
An Interview with Joel Whitman 

Recently, we had the good fortune to sit down with Joel Whitman, Principal at Whitman Consulting Group. We asked him to share some of his thoughts on the importance of customer service to the overall positioning for a company.

CC: How important is it for a company to improve the relationships with its existing customers vs. a focus on creating new customer relationships?

JW: Everyone will point to the obvious fact that it costs less to keep a customer happy than it does to find a new one. That being said, how many companies organize around this principle? An easy way to check is to follow some of your best customers through their experience – pre-sales, sales, post-sales, customer support, crisis response, long-term-proactive support and relationship building – chances are if the person doing pre-sales never talks to the person doing long-term support – your company is not walking the talk.

CC: In today’s business environment, many companies are being tasked with maintaining or improving customer satisfaction, while at the same time reducing operating costs. Isn’t this a paradox?

JW: It really depends on the type of business you are in. For example – if you are in some type of service business, chances are the customer experience is the business. Technology can take you some of the way there – but at some point you will either have to reduce the amount of service you provide – or look to other areas in which to cut costs. Unfortunately in certain cases customer support is seen as just another line item on the operational budget. Customers are smart; over time, they will figure out who really cares about their business.

CC: What is the best way for companies to use customer service to help meet their revenue goals?

JW: The best way to tie customer service (and customer satisfaction) to revenue goals is to start way back at the product and service strategy. When products and services are designed with customer adoption, use and growth in mind, the ability to up-sell and cross-sell is a natural part of the customer experience. On the flip side, if products are developed in isolation from one to the next, chances are the customer will never be a candidate for up-selling simply because there is nothing to naturally up-sell. It’s kind of like being forced to sell airplane parts to people who have just bought a car -- unnatural.

CC: Why is service so important? What about Sales and Marketing?

JW: Again, it depends on what you are selling. Do I really care how helpful the customer service people are who work for the company which makes my paper towels? Probably not. However, if you are in a business which has a lot of direct interaction with the ultimate user, customer service is part of the Product itself. Being known as a Customer Centric company is part of the message and value proposition delivered to prospects by sales – It is a powerful tool to differentiate and stand out from the competition.

CC: What are some of the benefits of linking Sales, Marketing and Service/Operations?

JW: It’s all about “whole product” development – if you are in a business which has a lot of direct interaction with the ultimate user then promoting the product is something which can be done all throughout the life of the customer. Sales, Marketing, and Service/Operations are all on the critical path of that customer relationship. It is imperative that the message, and value proposition which was sold be the actual benefit received. This can only be accomplished by taking a holistic view of the product lifecycle. Therefore, making a linkage between Sales, Marketing and Service/Operations is imperative.

CC: Many companies have purchased and gone through the implementation of a CRM system, but realized less than adequate return-on-investment. What can be done to help companies in this situation?

JW: CRM “flame-outs” have been front page news for quite some time, mainly because companies do exactly that – flame out. The failure of these implementations has nothing necessarily to do with IT incompetence (although, would you allow a first time surgeon to perform open heart surgery on you?). The common cause of failure is a lack of understanding within the technology organizations of how customer relationships are built and selling is done. Customer Relationship building is a high touch, human behavior driven activity – CRM software, is just that – software. Somewhere along the line someone has to internalize all of the elements and activity which go into to selling and supporting products which result in happy customers, turning that into a set of processes which can be implemented by a capable IT organization using the CRM software. This is precisely where a focused consulting firm can help: cutting across product development, marketing, sales and support can mean the difference between an accurate, useful CRM implementation and just another high ticket IT project which few use.

CC: You mention a “focused consulting firm.” What would you look for in a consulting firm to help companies improve the value they receive from their customer relationships?

JW: First, I would look for a firm that has “lived the life “of what I am trying to do. There are many firms that will bring in consultants that have little or no relevant work-experience in a functional area like customer service and try to use formulas and theories to solve real-world issues. They end up learning on the job and the company never fully benefits from the time and money that they invest trying to get them up to speed. Next, I would look for whether the firm has a vested interest in selling me something – especially another IT project. I’ve found that firms that aren’t trying to sell technology are more open to look at the complete scope of the issue, including the people, process and systems, and look for ways of optimizing the balance rather than jumping to the conclusion that it’s a technology issue. Third, I would look for the ability to address a number of potential issues – service strategy, satisfaction measurement, process design, and training. If the firm can’t follow through on the program they’ve just help strategize, you’re not going to like the results. Finally, I would look for the ability to set realistic short and long term goals for the project. This allows the company to see benefit from their investment, a key factor in today’s tight economy. This is also closely tied to the first point because it takes experience to determine what is do-able.

CC: Is now a good time for companies to invest in their customer relationships and customer service?

JW: It’s actually a very good time for companies to focus on this. Many companies are finding customers are not buying as much as they have been in the past. New customers are harder to come by. The pressure is on everyone to “make the numbers.” When done right, companies can not only reduce the overall cost of their business, but actually differentiate themselves through excellent customer service. This helps in the current market conditions, but will also help companies reap the reward when the economic conditions improve.


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