Are they being served?

Are they being served?

So your customers are ignorant - we all know that. It's how you cope with them that counts. Communicating with your customers, making sure they don't have unrealistic expectations, facing problems, and building intimacy and trust, are all part of the business.

Let us for once be politically incorrect and suggest that the customer is not always right.

We've all read scores of "forward" e-mails containing anecdotes that involve antics of those you could rightfully christen courtesy-challenged customers, detailing problems that often ensue from the lack of lateral or even plain logical thinking, rather than anything else.

Hands up if you haven't heard the story of the guy whose computer "died", because it hadn't been plugged into the electricity socket, or the woman whose brand new printer just "wouldn't print" - and understandably so, since there was no paper in it.

But one is taught from an early age that it is not particularly wise to bite the hand that feeds you. Often the only avenue an unjustifiably abused service provider can afford to go down is to occasionally whinge at an "underground" level, using chain e-mails and dinner tables as their only frustration vents and the ultimate mechanisms of revenge.

Call it injustice, call it what you will, the truth is that your average Joe Reseller doesn't really have any institutionalised support of the Department of Fair Trading kind (or any other kind, for that matter) when it comes to dealing with a sporadic, but nevertheless unnerving, value-add-fee-paying schmuck. In fact, short of providing your sales and customer service staff with a crash course in psychology and customer management, there is not much you can do apart from arming yourself with loads of patience and keeping your eyes firmly focused on the bottom line.

And the bottom line, according to Paul Childes, spokesperson for the NSW Department of Fair Trading, is that while misunderstanding is prevalent in the IT market, most companies dealing in this space are reputable and hence unlikely to suffer at the hands of law, even if they do from time to time suffer at the hands of a disconcerted client.

To be fair, levels of distress both for a customer and a service provider can be greatly reduced simply by applying some new age thinking to the concept of selling technology. Suffice it to say, getting in touch with "the customer within you" can probably save you from a considerable amount of stress in the long run.

"Our own maxim is to treat our customers the way we'd like to be treated," comments Tony Prince, proprietor and manager of PC reseller ComPlus.

Crediting this approach for the fact that most of ComPlus' business comes from old customers, Prince says the easiest way to ensure your business dealings are not full of discord is by keeping "communication channels" open. "Most sales staff are trained to make a sale and they often out-talk the customer," he asserts. "What they forget is to make sure they understand what the customer's needs are and that the customer knows what they're buying. If you get it right the first time, there will be no need for a customer to complain."

Ola Brown, general manager of FishTech, a Sydney-based company that derives 70 per cent of its income from providing professional IT services, agrees with the concept, observing that just as in other spheres of life, most situations that involve a degree of conflict or dissatisfaction on customers' behalf can be traced back to bad communication.

"What it all comes down to is people dealing with people and it is not an 'Einsteiny' thing to know that good communication will mean a good relationship with your customer," she remarks.

"Sometimes, there are problems if a reseller doesn't set the right expectations, such as the issue of how fast a product can be delivered. Sometimes, customers have very high expectations or they don't really know what they want and we have to help them articulate their needs to make sure they get what they want in the end. In any case, communication is crucial."

Even so, good communication skills cannot always guarantee the relationship between a customer and a service provider will be totally conflict-free. Brown admits to having seen the other side of the coin involving what she dubs a "bad-day customer".

Emphasising, however, that FishTech hasn't had many problems, she says the company has learnt from these experiences and improved its customer management procedures accordingly to avoid conflict.

"Our sales staff are trained to deal with that and they can usually solve the problem by making sure they report to clients every couple of hours, so that the customer doesn't feel forgotten," Brown explains. "In more extreme cases, they make sure that customers get to talk to the managing director or myself and we take it from there."

Not reflecting on FishTech's good reputation, it has to be said that some of the "blame" for the award-winning company's predominantly positive experience with customers can be attributed to the fact that they deal mostly with businesses. Resellers targeting the lower end of the market report that, as a rule, individual consumers are more difficult to deal with than people buying products or services for business use.

"Most of our business customers are great," Prince confirms. "But in the home market you sometimes have to make it difficult for a customer to buy from you, simply because they often tend to select and purchase a product that they're not really ready to use and then come back to you expecting to get $1000 worth of support for free with a product that might have cost them $5000 to buy."

The problem of a customer on a beer budget who wants to drink champagne is as old as trade itself, yet it somehow seems to ring true at the lower end of the computer service and sales market more than anywhere else.

"Ten years ago, we used to charge our customers $60 for a monitor loan, while we were repairing their own hardware," says Peter Holdenson, managing director of Melbourne computer service provider Nucleus, to illustrate the point. "Today, we charge them $30, yet most customers refuse to pay as a matter of principle. They simply expect more free service and more free help than ever."

For this reason, Holdenson too is a firm believer in being up-front about what the customer can expect for a certain price, even though that often means losing business to a less communicative competitor. But playing along for the sake of keeping your customer's business can be a pyrrhic victory. For while the percentage of highly demanding customers that Prince and Holdenson are talking about might be relatively small, there is no doubt that their effect on a small business operation such as ComPlus or Nucleus can be significant.

"Put it this way, if a computer comes back to us three times, we've lost our margin," Prince says. "This is why that original negotiation process is so important," he adds.

Yet, teaching customers that in life you get what you pay for is no easy task.

Shane Luces, national sales manager of Melbourne-headquartered Centari Systems, claims that, although these days both home users and small-to-medium businesses seem to be much better informed about the choices available to them and the technology they want to use than they were two or three years ago, using information resources such as the Internet can create a lot of frustration both on the customer's and provider's part.

"The Internet is a great source of information and also a great source of confusion," Luces asserts.

"We regularly get customers who look at Web sites in the US and see that a product can be obtained cheaper over there and then demand to know why they can't get it cheaper from us.

"Or they see the latest specifications for a product not yet available in Australia and want us to provide the same, making it difficult for us to match their expectations."

Dealing with problems like false expectations, according to Luces, requires an "open-door policy" that enables customers to not only get a "very clear commitment" from their provider, but also to have "a vent to voice their concerns", even if it means allowing them to speak directly with the company management, which seems to be more of a rule than an exception these days.

"If you do these things proactively, your call time and productivity time will increase significantly, delivering some cost saving back to the customer," Luces advises.

Sometimes, however, conflict just cannot be avoided, which is simply a fact of life, and following the very first rule of customer relationship means there is no point in trying to shy away from it.

"If you do something wrong, you have to talk to your customer about it," FishTech's Brown says. "Facing a problem is the only way to its resolution and your reputation depends on your ability to do it successfully. Intimacy and trust take time to build and conflicts are a part of that process." After all, as Brown herself said, people dealing with people is what it all comes down to.

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