by Gail March Yerke
How do you rate your company’s customer service? When businesses were asked this question in a recent survey, 80% answered that they deliver great customer service. When customers of those same companies were tracked and asked the same question, only 8% agreed. Is this an unusual disconnect from what businesses think they are providing and what customers say they receive? Not according to professors Eric Barrett and Rob Leeds of Ohio State. The two educators presented their “Excellent, Awesome Customer Service” program at a recent conference sponsored by the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers.
Leeds teaches direct farm marketing at Ohio State and leads a video production team that creates innovative content for agriculture. Barrett specializes in local foods direct marketing and has been teaching and leading Extension programs at the university since 1986. Both run seasonal agribusinesses at their respective Ohio family farms, where customer service is a key economic value to their success.
“Customer service is your brand in action,” began Leeds. “Knowing what customers think of you and how they interpret your image is a great way to start a plan to improve customer service at your farm. Before you can serve your customer, though, you need to decide why customers shop your business.”
Leeds cited the three reasons people choose where they shop: price, convenience and experience. Lower pricing draws customers to the big box stores and convenience is the hallmark of online businesses with quick home delivery. When all is said and done, most agribusinesses focus on experience. “Ask yourself what it is you want to compete in, what are you all about? Price and convenience can easily take a back seat to experience. Whether it’s a visit to your farm or shopping the local farmers market, it’s the ‘experience’ that your customers are looking for.”
Know Your Story
“Customer service really starts with knowing your story,” said Leeds. Farmers markets offer a great opportunity for people to get to know the producer of their food products directly. From welcome greetings to helping customers with product information, training is important. Employees should know your farm’s backstory and share it with visitors to your farm and farmers markets, scripted in a way that sounds natural and spontaneous.
According to Barrett and Leeds, touchpoints are connections with your customers that happen every day. “Do your employees smile?” Leeds asked. “Little things matter.” How does your staff answer the phone and how do you deal with customer lines? Even your farm’s signage is a touchpoint. Besides in-person touchpoints, social media and your website are connections with your customers and a part of your customer service picture.
Their Awesome Customer Service model includes four steps of continuous improvement: prepare, respond and mitigate, recover and improve practices. Preparing includes writing your plan and training employees. Responding and mitigating focuses on your long-term relationships with customers. Recovery is all about having a plan for potential customer service fails and designating who is in charge to communicate, including social media. Finally, improving practices involves continually updating your plan and anticipating future customer service issues. “Any time you deal with the public you are going to have issues. How do you respond? How are you mitigating? It is not something you just put in place and then just let it stay there. You keep improving it,” said Leeds.
Responding and mitigating happens on a daily basis in business. Leeds explained that empowering key staff to make quick decisions on the spot results in happier customers. For example, a pumpkin farm could allow key staff to discount frost-damaged pumpkins. “When a situation arises, it’s not just about the issue at hand. It’s about a long term relationship,” he added.
Recovery requires having a plan for potential customer service fails. Designate who is in charge to communicate during these instances. Depending on the situation, communication can include social media.
The final step in their model is to improve practices by continually updating your plan. Anticipate future customer service issues and plan what your response will be. “Be who you are, knowing that not every customer will think you are great,” Leeds concluded. “Define who you are, set your customers’ expectations and train your employees. Customer service isn’t a one-time action, but a cycle that includes preparation, response, recovery and updating your plan.”
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