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The importance of maintaining customer service in difficult times

Nick Gold, MD, Speakers Corner

As 2022 drew to a close, most of us craved a period of calmness, both economically and emotionally. But as global recession looms, 2023 will bring continued uncertainty. Business leaders will need to find yet more inner strength to weather the storm.

But one key differentiator can help businesses get through difficult times, helping you retain clients and increase revenues: excellent customer service.

Focusing on the customer isn’t always easy when you’re worried about the future of your business. But understanding and continuing to provide the value you’ve always offered will help you survive. It’s all about truly understanding yourself as a company, and trusting your team to deliver.

Why you should prioritise customers in tough times

Business leaders and scholars agree that customer experience is central to your company’s competitiveness in the marketplace. It underpins many key operations, from marketing to product development to HR. At uncertain times, this doesn’t change — in fact, it’s more important than ever to prioritise your customers.

Companies that excel in customer experience have revenues up to 8% higher than those that don’t. And 96% of people say customer experience influences their brand loyalty. So prioritising customer experience helps you stay competitive and retain customers, even during hard times.

But once you’ve set those high standards, you must maintain them, regardless of external pressures. And that’s where things get difficult.

Staying present to provide great customer service

The key to great customer experience is being there when your clients need you. So your most important strategy is to convey that, whatever’s going on, you have all the time in the world for them.

Be present in the moment and focus on your customers’ challenges, rather than your own. Of course, it’s OK to be vulnerable — this can even help you connect with customers on a deeper level. But try to avoid letting the wider mood impact how you interact with your customers.

A good measure of great customer experience is that your clients feel they’re being treated the same way they always have been. Despite the internal and external pressures, you’re giving them the same level of service they’ve come to expect from you. This puts your customers at ease, and gives them faith that you’ll be there to support them throughout these difficult times.

Support, not sales

When financial pressure sets in, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to push harder for sales. You might (subconsciously or otherwise) put time pressures on customers to sign contracts or make purchases.

This can damage your relationships with both customers and employees. Clients must be able to take as long as they need to make a buying decision, and staff should be given time to cultivate customer relationships. Customer experience isn’t about transactions; it’s about true relationships and support. This leads to longer term gains for your company.

Businesses also tend to move away from speculative conversations during difficult economic periods. This is understandable; you want to invest time in making sales that will immediately impact your bottom line. But speculative discussions and meetings often lead to new opportunities — so keep your communication channels open, even when time and money are tight.

Empowering your team to give great service

While customer experience must be your focus, your relationship with your team is just as important. After all, they’re the ones who create customer experience — and they’re currently facing their own challenges.

Many staff want payrises to cope with the rising cost-of-living. But they also want safety and security. As an employer, do your best to provide this. Backing your staff will motivate them to work hard, building better relationships with customers and generating higher revenue.

You must also temper your expectations. You can’t parachute sales or support staff in and expect them to start making sales; it takes time to build rapport with customers. Managers and leaders must understand this, and support teams to make service-based decisions.

That’s not to say money should be taboo. It’s OK to make staff aware of the pressures the business is under, and to highlight the importance of revenue during tricky economic times. But it must be an open dialogue. Staff should be able to raise concerns, and leaders should understand that there are more barriers to sales success than before.

The influence of leadership

Balancing optimism with realism is key to weathering uncertainty as a leader. You should push forward with your strategy and goals, while accepting the turmoil you’re likely to encounter on the way to achieving them.

Both customers and employees feel more at ease if leaders show solidarity and decisiveness. Try not to sweat the small stuff. Remember that sometimes inaction is as conscious and justifiable as taking action.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders must believe in the business mission. If you really understand yourself as a company, you’ll know that you’re relevant in both good and bad times and bad times — enabling you to deliver at the same level you always have. Recognising that customer experience is at the heart of your strategy will help you empathise with both staff and clients, giving them the time and space they need to forge relationships that will help your business thrive in the long term.

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