In the beginning, great products were enough to guarantee your business success. With product sophistication, “six sigma” manufacturing and zero defects you could consistently beat the competition without having to worry about other ways to improve customer satisfaction.
But benchmarking, product imitation and reverse engineering came on the scene, and now everyone can make great products.
Then super-fast delivery appeared to improve customer satisfaction. Those who produced and shipped products and served their customers quicker were rewarded with growing market share and higher profits. Digital delivery, cycle-time reduction and 24-hour access (by phone and internet) all accelerated commerce – and competition. But now everyone’s got a terrific website and courier services cross the planet overnight to improve customer satisfaction.
To stay ahead of the competition, excellent-service mindset is coming back into vogue. Being polite, competent and concerned is once again as important as it was in your grandmother’s era to improve customer satisfaction. And while not every company has mastered this field, competition at the top is intense. Whether you stay at the Sheraton Towers or the Shangri-La, dine at the Rainbow Room or the Hard Rock Café, fly British Airways or Singapore Airlines, the service you receive today will often be quite good as more companies strive to improve customer satisfaction.
With competition to improve customer satisfaction so intense, winning companies are now growing in still another vital dimension. In addition to great products, rapid delivery and excellent service mindset, market leaders are building stronger partnerships with their most valuable clients, suppliers and employees.
What does it mean to build strong partnerships? Why do you need to master this vital skill? What practical steps can you take to achieve it right now and improve customer satisfaction?
First, let’s put partnership in perspective. There are four different styles of interaction in business (and in life) and three of them are not partnerships at all!
The One-Shot Deal
The first style of interaction is characterized by a short-term focus between the parties. Beyond completing the exchange of the moment, no lasting commitment is intended or implied. Asking someone for directions, buying goods at a close-out sale or picking up a paper from the corner newsstand are all clear examples of the “one-shot deal.”
Many familiar phrases are associated with this kind of brief and immediate interaction: “Take it or leave it,” “What you see is what you get,” “Here today, gone tomorrow.” With no promise of future involvement between the parties, one more sentence certainly applies: “Caveat emptor” in Latin. In English: “Let the buyer beware.” Ways to improve customer satisfaction don’t necessarily matter in these transactions (but they should).
The second style of interaction takes more time than a “one-shot” deal. More moments of contact are involved in these transactions, and additional effort is required to meet or exceed customer expectations and improve customer satisfaction.
Taking a flight from one city to another is an example that includes telephone reservations, airport check-in, on-time departure, drinks, entertainment and service onboard, timely arrival and speedy delivery of checked baggage.
If all of these perception points are well managed, then customers are usually satisfied and a state of affairs called “transaction satisfaction” exists.
Although no future involvement is promised or required in these transactions, customers often return to vendors and suppliers who consistently meet their transactional needs. This makes looking for ways to improve customer satisfaction important.
The third style of interaction extends “transaction satisfaction” into the future. Consistency and dependability are essential, as customers and suppliers count on each other in more frequent business dealings. When done well, this can evolve into a “reliable relationship” – and both parties benefit over time because of efforts to improve customer satisfaction that are consistent.
Examples of “reliable relationships” include daily newspaper delivery, purchases of office supplies on a store credit account, maintenance contracts for essential equipment, and annual checkups with your family doctor.
The fourth style of interaction calls for constant attention to ways to improve customer satisfaction. It extends into the future, but the value and importance of each interaction grows significantly over time. In a “powerful partnership” both parties find that working well together brings new possibilities, unique opportunities and otherwise unachievable growth.
A powerful partnership does not grow unattended. It hinges on finding ways to improve customer satisfaction. Substantial effort and ongoing investments of time, creativity and resources are required to keep a powerful partnership going – and growing.
Examples of powerful partnerships may include research joint ventures, marketing, manufacturing and distribution alliances, excellent manager and secretary combinations and many successful marriages.
Key questions to consider
Which of these four styles of interaction describes your current situation with customers, suppliers, colleagues, managers and employees? Among the four, where are you right now? Where do you want to be? What can you do to improve customer satisfaction to advance a relationship?
Four Stages of Improvement
Leaving the “one-shot” deal aside (it’s too short-term much long-term improvement), let’s focus on how to make your transactions more satisfying, your relationships more reliable and your partnerships increasingly powerful.
In each of these styles of interaction, four stages can be identified. Each stage is fertile territory for self-assessment, competitive evaluation and focused action to improve customer satisfaction. The four stages are Explore, Agree, Deliver and Assure.
Stage One: Explore
This first stage is the domain of exploration, discovery and open-minded speculation. Both parties must share a commitment to honesty, full disclosure and the desire to create new possibilities together.
Robust exploration can uncover wants, needs, concerns, good and bad past experiences, present constraints, future interests, current priorities and a wide range of competitive and collaborative considerations that can help improve customer satisfaction.
Traditionally this is the domain of marketing, research and strategic visionaries. But the “explore” quadrant actually plays an essential role in launching most successful interactions, and should be engaged in vigorously by everyone to improve customer satisfaction.
This is the time to build rapport, develop an open dialogue and listen carefully for spoken ambitions and unspoken concerns.
Contingency planning begins here with your willingness to discuss the upside and possible downside of the future. Here is where you look together into what can go right – and what might unavoidably go wrong.
How well do you explore? Do you regularly meet with your prospects and customers “just to share ideas?” Or do you contact them only after they call you, or after something has broken down?
Do you survey your market? Do you conduct interviews, customer focus groups and on-site visits to find out how to improve customer satisfaction? Do you have a method for doing this consistently or is it an ad hoc process “as and when required?”
How easy is it for your customers to explore and learn about you? Is your history and philosophy conveniently presented in print and on your website? Can prospects learn quickly about your products, competencies and directions for the future? Do you share stories of how you helped other clients, offering testimonials and references upon request?
If you do not explore well, you may develop the reputation of a mere order taker – responding when required, but only fulfilling direct and straightforward requests.
When you do explore well, you can build a very different public identity: a person who listens well, is interested in the future and who cares about other people’s possibilities and concerns. This identity opens up a vast horizon for collaboration, commitment and extended agreements. This is simply because your clients believe you strive continuously to improve customer satisfaction.
Stage Two: Agree
Robust exploration can lead to new opportunities for building the future together and can help improve customer satisfaction. Initial requests and offers become the first steps toward mutually fulfilling agreements.
In business, excellent agreements are clearly documented with a detailed list of specifications and expectations, including quantities, schedules, prices, service levels and warranties (among other things).
In a simple transaction, negotiations toward agreement may be conducted in an atmosphere that is competitive and highly charged. But when you are working toward a relationship or partnership and want to improve customer satisfaction, negotiations should be infused with a different spirit: a shared commitment to win-win agreement and mutual, long-term satisfaction.
Contingency planning is essential at this stage to improve customer satisfaction if problems arise. By carefully thinking through what might go wrong, detailed back-up plans can be agreed to long before they are needed.
Finally, in world-class organizations, the very process of coming to an agreement is itself world-class, with easy-to-understand documentation, user-friendly procedures, around-the-clock access and flexible terms and conditions to improve customer satisfaction.
How smoothly and thoroughly do you forge your agreements to improve customer satisfaction? Do customers marvel at how easy it is to do business with you, or do they complain bitterly about your bureaucratic systems and say you need to improve customer satisfaction? Do they thank you for your flexibility and understanding, or are they left cold by your rigid ‘one-size-fits-all’ conditions, products and pricing?
Clear agreements enable effective delivery. Lack of clarity breeds suspicion, uncertainty and misunderstanding. Vague promises may get you started, but if things don’t turn out as expected, misunderstanding can lead to disagreement and even escalate to a legal dispute.
In a world that prizes ease of use, saving time and maximum convenience, improving the way you make agreements can give your organization a powerful step up on the competition.
Stage Three: Deliver
With agreements complete, your “deliver” stage begins.
Here you take all necessary action to fulfill your promises and thoroughly execute your agreements to improve customer satisfaction. You serve, develop, customize, manufacture, test, ship, install, modify, upgrade, provide promised training and support.
At this stage you need people who understand what to do and who have the necessary resources to get the job done right to improve customer satisfaction. This means your delivery team must have a crystal-clear understanding of the promises made in your agreement. It also means they must have the tools, time and training to completely and successfully deliver and improve customer satisfaction.
Throughout the delivery stage, it is essential to track progress and keep appropriate parties well informed. If everything goes according to plan, frequent updates can further reinforce confidence among your customers and colleagues while working to improve customer satisfaction. And if the unexpected occurs, the sooner you communicate this to others, the sooner your contingency plans can be launched and put into place.
This willingness and ability to quickly declare “breakdowns” is an important area where world-class companies differentiate themselves from the rest and work to improve customer satisfaction. While some organizations try to hide bad news and discreetly “put out the fire,” others pride themselves on rapidly alerting all parties so that new actions can be quickly and effectively taken – even capitalizing on unexpected or unintended opportunities. Honesty is an excellent way to improve customer satisfaction.
Stage Four: Assure
In many industries, the ability to deliver on budget and on time has been honed to a fine art with “six sigma” quality control and cycle-time reduction. But effective delivery does not complete the cycle – not if you are interested in continuing or expanding your involvement over time. More attention is required to improve customer satisfaction.
The final stage is “assure” and is one of the most fertile areas for generating new possibilities in business. In the assure quadrant, you accomplish three vital tasks:
1. Check to see if the promises made on both sides have been fulfilled. If they have, then acknowledge, recognize and reward. If they have not, immediately return to deliver and complete the job to improve customer satisfaction.
2. Confirm that the needs of your customer have been truly satisfied by the actions you have taken. You may discover that you have faithfully completed all the terms of the agreement, but the original concerns of your customer remain unfulfilled. This is not necessarily the fault of either party and may instead be the result of events that happened in the meantime.
When this happens, promptly initiate a new round of exploration. Work together to build a more refined set of needs and expectations. Create new agreements to satisfy these needs, and then move forward once again to deliver and assure. This can boost efforts to improve customer satisfaction.
3. Finally, during the assure process, find ways to work even more effectively together the next time to improve customer satisfaction. How could the cycle you have just completed be done more quickly or with even better results? What changes should you implement as you move forward into another round of explore, agree, deliver and assure?
Well-planned and sincerely executed assurance can be an effective way of seeking new business. Detailed follow-through often leads to new possibilities, new agreements, new opportunities to deliver.
How well do you and your team members assure to improve customer satisfaction? Do you consistently follow up with a proven plan of surveys, interviews and on-site customer visits? Or do you subscribe to the old school of “no news is good news” and wait for disgruntled customers to contact you…if they ever do?
Taking a holistic approach to improve customer satisfaction
In many organizations, the four stages of improvement are handled by four different departments: exploration is the realm of marketing; agreements are completed by sales; delivery is the domain of manufacturing, operations and logistics; and assurance is provided, if required, by after-sales warranty and customer service. This does little to improve customer satisfaction.
Unfortunately, this approach can leave customers with a schizophrenic experience of your organization and will not improve customer satisfaction. Your customers are told one thing by the first department but hear a different story from the next. They cry out for “one face” to work with rather than an ever-expanding list of business cards, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. This is not the way to improve customer satisfaction.
Inside the organization, this fragmented and specialized approach can lead to mistrust – even outright conflict – between departments and will not improve customer satisfaction.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem can be built right into the procedures and culture of your organization.
First, connect the “four stages of improvement” with frequent and detailed communication between departments to improve customer satisfaction.
Second, institutionalize shared understanding with cross-training, cross-functional teams, and longer-term attachments. The more your people understand what their colleagues are doing, the better your colleagues – and your customers – will be served.
Building a Foundation of Trust
Each time you successfully complete a cycle of explore, agree, deliver and assure, another level of trust is reached between the parties.
This is how humans build trust with one another. We find out what another person is concerned about: we explore. We make promises to do something on their behalf: we agree. We do what we promised to do: we deliver. And then we follow up to be sure they are truly satisfied: we assure.
Building trust starts with promises for small items, little issues, minor concerns. After you have proven yourself to be trustworthy, then people will open up to share with you and rely on you more.
Want a large order from your customer? Prove yourself with smaller jobs first and work to improve customer satisfaction. Want more responsibility from your boss? Demonstrate your skills and your commitment with a series of well-executed projects.
This makes good sense in business, but it can also apply in your personal and social life. Indeed, building trust with others is the foundation for all successful relationships. Trust is the necessary glue for the partnerships we rely on today – and those we build together for the future. Improve customer satisfaction in all areas of your life and you will thank yourself later.