Creating Better Customers

Happy CustomerImagine your best customer. They understand your products or services nearly as well, sometimes better, than you do.  They tell other people about how good you are, and they’re always ready to serve as a reference. When you launch a new product, or a new version of your existing product, they’re often the first to adopt, and they provide you with great feedback.

Are these better customers an accident, a happy coincidence of their needs and your products or services, or is it possible to create better customers? I think the latter is true, and here are a few thoughts about how to increase your chances of developing better customers.

Educate Your Customers

Make training free or low-cost. I’ve never understood why companies charge thousands of dollars for training.  A trained customer is a more valuable customer, more likely to stay with your product and more likely to be a promoter of your product.

When I was at Microsoft in the nineties, and we were competing with Novell, one of Novell’s biggest assets was their Certified Network Engineers (CNEs). But it was expensive to become a CNE. The typical courses cost thousands of dollars. We gave away thousands of vouchers for free training to allow people to become Lan Manager Certified. This was a hugely successful program.

Tableau, the data analysis and visualization tool, understands this very well. They offer a large library of free training videos, one hour live sessions with a Tableau expert and traditional classroom training. Only the traditional classroom training has a cost, and the cost is very reasonable.

Celebrate Your Most Valuable Customers

Create a program to celebrate your most knowledgeable customers and allow them to help others.

One of the most well known examples of this is the Microsoft MVP program.  There are over 2000 MVPs worldwide, and they answers thousands of questions every day in multiple languages across nearly 100 countries, at no cost to Microsoft. In 2011, Business Insider rated Microsoft online support three times better than Apple online support, primarily due to Microsoft MVPs.

Embrace Customer Complaints

Many companies see customer service as a cost center and make it as difficult as possible to reach someone. They also depend on the front lines of the customer service crew to absorb the worst of the customer complaints, with no clear mechanism to gather data about these complaints and fix them as rapidly as possible. That’s certainly the experience I had with Verizon this week.

Look at a customer complaint as a gift. A customer is telling you what it’s going to take to continue to earn their business. The alternative, a customer who doesn’t complain to you, is worse.  That customer switches to your competitor without giving you a chance to fix whatever is wrong, and you can bet that if they aren’t complaining to you, they’re voicing their complaint to others.

Sometimes a customer complaint can’t be fixed. What the customer wants may go against your stated product direction or philosophy. Basecamp, the project management software, doesn’t implement every feature available in competitor’s software, or every feature requested by customers. They’ve made a conscious decision to keep it simple, both to make the product easy to learn and to ensure fast performance.

If you can’t fix a customer complaint, take the time to explain why. Not everyone will agree, but your best customers will embrace your philosophy.

Hire and Train the Best

Every customer interaction is a chance to create a better customer. Make sure that it is part of every customer facing employee’s job description to educate the customer. Keep them in place long enough that they develop a real relationship with the customer. Allow customer service reps to use their names and their personalities. You don’t have to have all of them reading off a script. Allow customers to choose who services them. Develop a personal, emotional relationship.

On the business to consumer side of things, Nordstrom is one of the best at hiring and training their people to educate the customer. If you’ve ever used their personal shopper program, they not only provide personalized service, but they point out what looks good on you. They educate you about different brands, which run large, which run small.

On the business to business side of things, Rackspace does an excellent job supporting their customers. Every customer has a team of Rackers (as they call themselves) available 24×7 to answer their questions. As a result of this fanatical customer service, Rackspace has been awarded 7 Stevie awards since 2012 for their customer service.

Fire Your Worst Customers

Seriously, the customer isn’t always right. There are a small percentage of customers who abuse your company and more importantly, your employees. Allow them to go to the competition. This has to be done very carefully – you don’t want to fire a customer just for being a squeaky wheel. But there is a difference between a customer who is momentarily frustrated and taking it out on a customer service rep and a customer who constantly abuses your staff.  Learn to recognize the latter, and send those customers away.

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